Happy 80th Birthday Batman – Why Do We Still Need You?

First, some context.

I got my PhD from the University of Technology Sydney in 2016. My thesis was 82,000-ish words about American popular culture during the United States government eras of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Batman was the main object of study: I talked about how many Batman stories – along with franchises like Star Trek and the Marvel Cinematic Universe – reflected political, social and cultural tensions that emerged following 9/11, and how these stories broke those tensions down to be digestible for audiences, to give them a space to reason with topics like international invasion, domestic terrorism, state security and civic responsibility.

My PhD, enabling my career as a teaching and research academic, was largely the result of the deep love I have for the Caped Crusader. As a kid, Batman: The Animated Series was almost always on the TV every Saturday morning (provided my younger brother hadn’t woken up early and hijacked it for Saturday Disney). Near the end of high school I blew my casual income on four cinema screenings of The Dark Knight, before using it as a case study for my HSC exams and, later, my Bachelor’s degree Honours thesis. I’ve read innumerable comics featuring Batman, including the main title, spin-offs and crossovers with others like Superman and the Justice League. Two years ago, I was even driven to my wedding in a Michael Keaton-era Batmobile; if you’ve never sped along the freeway in a rocket-boosted Batmobile as fellow drivers look on in shock while avoiding a ten-car pileup, you haven’t lived.

To sum the above, I love Batman as a character, as a symbol of empowerment, and as a lens for critiquing the real world. After Star Trek, he’s my favourite franchise of all time.

As the character turns 80, I’m wondering why we need him anymore.

Though it’s unlikely he will ever truly fade into obscurity, we’re still far removed from the days of Batman’s imperial phase as the dominant superhero, both in the zeitgeist and at the box office. Rather than largely relying on the Big Three of Batman, Superman and Spider-Man for the moviegoing public, superhero films are now replete with more diverse household names, like Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. In comparison to those latter three, Batman’s last two live-action big screen gigs brought underwhelming box office returns and tepid (at best) critical reception, to the point where we’re not even sure who’s playing him right now. The comics, though telling a great story and still selling reliably under the stewardship of ace writer Tom King, lack a bit of the mass appeal that made them a hit back when Batman’s son dying was big news outside the comic’s fandom. Add to that the conclusion of the Arkham video games in 2015, and there are fewer and fewer places where the once-mighty Dark Knight is still visible, let alone virally popular.

Personally, I’d argue that part of the problem is Batman got a bit overexposed. Compare this year to his 75th anniversary in 2014: two years after the end of Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, with Ben Affleck’s turn in the cowl on the horizon; a year out from the thrilling Arkham Knight video game; halfway through Scott Snyder’s beloved, award-winning comic book run. That’s to say nothing of Batman’s myriad appearances in The LEGO Movie (earning him his own spin-off film in 2017), the Son of Batman animated film and Beware the Batman animated series, the Injustice: Gods Among Us beat-em-up video game released the previous year in 2013, and more ongoing and guest appearances in comic books than is probably healthy for a septuagenarian superhero. Avoiding Batman’s omnipresence in 2014 seemed almost impossible. Today, he’s still here, nice and grim and growly, but maybe not quite as in-your-face about it.

Perhaps we’re a bit tired of that grimness. Without wishing to invoke the 21st Century equivalent of Godwin’s law by namechecking a certain world leader, we know the world is wearying and dark, politically, ecologically, socially. Though we still love our grimdark pop culture in the likes of Game of Thrones, Westworld and The Walking Dead, maybe we’re not as keen on that anymore when it comes to our superhero saviours, meant to elevate us and bring us hope for a bright tomorrow. We don’t want Henry Cavill wearing a murky, de-saturated outfit and brooding over killing his enemies – we want Superman, hanging out with Lois Lane and his superpowered son, all bright colours and over-the-trousers underpants. We’re no longer thrilled by the tense anxiety of the Joker’s victims deliberating on killing each other in The Dark Knight – we’re after Tom Hiddleston’s Loki making sardonic wisecracks while plotting to melodramatically betray everyone in Thor: Ragnarok. Throughout almost every medium in which he’s currently present, Batman hasn’t quite caught up to the rest of us yet.

Of course, we know superheroes never fully go out of style. The most famous cinematic superheroes of the 2010s all endured phases in their decades-long histories that could charitably be described as “wonky”, popularity-wise. Batman himself languished in the years following Adam West’s goofy 1960s TV rendition, weathering an embarrassing reputation as a child-friendly comedic curio until the twin guns of Neal Adams’ 1970s comic book run and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel in the 1980s brought the Bat back to the grim violence and brooding hypermasculinity for which he’s known. The story of Batman the character is one of continuous renewal, changing to suit the evolving tastes of an enormous, global audience.

That highlights one of the things that is fascinating about Batman: his ability to be a palimpsest, a renewable symbol who can reflect each time and place that makes him. True, he’s not a critical lens the same way that literal cultural embodiments like Captain America are (an example whose recent comic books prove that some timely real world critiques really require a much higher degree of nuance to pull off than most), but he’s still representative of his era in almost everything he stars in. He was a dashing, Zorro-inspired detective, delivering justice in Gotham at the dawn of the Second World War; a fun, hip, comedic goof in the anxious age of 1960s America; a hulking, thuggish brute who became the violent protector of a frightened Gotham in the years before and after the towers fell. Each era of Batman’s fictional life has been a kind of metamorphosis, demarcating almost Doctor Who-like separate iterations of the same man across film, television, video game and comic page. Perhaps part of the reason Batman’s lost some favour in 2019 is because he is going through a stage of that metamorphosis, evolving from his Dark Knight self of nihilism and exceptional justice, and into something new. A form we don’t quite know yet.

So to answer my initial question: yes, I believe we still need Batman. Personal sentiment aside – and make no mistake, I love Batman now far more than when I was watching him on Saturday mornings – I think it’ll be fascinating to see who he becomes as we edge in the 2020s, and to see the kind of world the next era of his life will embody. His 80th may not have been the raucous party that the three-quarter century mark was in 2014, but I know my grandparents were partial to quieter, contemplative affairs as they got older, too.

Happy Birthday, Batman. Here’s to what – and who – comes next.

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Sorting Out Fair Play Across The Universe: Doctor Who, Gender and Empathy

The following contains spoilers for the Doctor Who Season 11 premiere, ‘The Woman Who Fell to Earth’.


Doctor Who is back, and we couldn’t be luckier. With a new Doctor, showrunner, production team and composer, it’s a truly new era for the 55-years-young franchise. It’s also helped by the fact that the new era has all the indications of being quite good, if Episode 1 of Thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker’s tenure – rife with sinister ambience, warm characters and a sonic screwdriver made of spoons – is anything to go by.

Beyond that, we’re lucky, ironically, because of the time in which this new era has begun. Whittaker’s casting as the first canonically female Doctor enters a tapestry of discourse centred around spotlighting women who are being further enabled to stand against the damage inflicted by masculine, misogynist hegemonic power. From the #MeToo movement’s ongoing efforts, to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s powerful testimony against incumbent Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, to the release last week of Clementine Ford’s book Boys Will Be Boys confronting the ideals of toxic masculinity, we are within a flashpoint where the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor couldn’t have come at a better time.

To say Whittaker’s Doctor is an empowering character – for any gender – is a truism. Each Doctor, going all the way back to 1963’s first incarnation in William Hartnell, is intended to inspire the audience of its time: a figure of ultimate good faced with challenges and finding a way through the moral morass to the best solution. In this sense, Whittaker’s Doctor immediately establishes herself as the successor to thirteen(ish) lives worth of heroism, embodying the Doctor’s best in terms of wit, wisdom and concern for wellbeing.

Whittaker’s casting came in part as a proviso of producers Chris Chibnall and Matt Strevens, who made casting a female Doctor a mandatory condition of their taking over showrunning duties, and is deservedly lauded. Much has already been written on the inspiring effect Whittaker will no doubt have for young girls, finally able to see a woman playing the role of their childhood hero. What’s worth highlighting here, too, is the benefit Whittaker and the women of Doctor Who can have – and, hopefully, have already started to have – on young boys.

There’s a scene towards the end of Whittaker’s first episode that’s stuck with me since I watched it Monday night. Grace, the headstrong would-be companion and grandmother to new main character Ryan, dies following a confrontation with the monster of the week. At the prelude to her funeral, Ryan stands at the doors of the church, waiting for his father – Grace’s son – to arrive for the service. The Doctor waits with Ryan, opining that his father’s just running late. Two hours late seems unlikely, says Ryan. You can see the Doctor thinks so too. But still she waits with Ryan, before attending the funeral as Grace’s husband, Graham, delivers the eulogy.

The scene lasts maybe twenty seconds. Little dialogue is exchanged, and it largely serves to show Ryan’s absent father is a deadbeat. But it left an impact, because it was something few other Doctors could or would have done with the same simple degree of empathy. Though they showed compassion in their own ways, certainly none of the recent Doctors, keeping in mind I love all four of them, would’ve reacted the same as the Thirteenth. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor would’ve offered a brooding, gloomy acknowledgement, or otherwise stalked off. David Tennant’s would’ve profusely apologised with a grim expression and mournful eyes. Matt Smith’s might’ve offered an awkward hand-on-the-shoulder, whilst Peter Capaldi’s likely would have stood with Ryan and not said anything at all. I’m also dubious as to whether any of them would’ve actually attended either the funeral or the wake on the stairs afterwards; maybe Tennant, but he might’ve borrowed a page from Eccleston’s book and brooded while he did it.

By contrast, Whittaker stands with Ryan – and with new companions Graham and Yaz – as one of them, a supportive, empathetic colleague who doesn’t fall victim to the cliched writing of a maternal stereotype. The funeral scenes cap an episode where the Thirteenth Doctor shows care for the corpse of an unfortunate victim of the monster, praises her new friends for their initiative in defeating said monster whilst consistently inviting them in as collaborators rather than followers, and asks the monster to “please” leave Earth rather than flat-out command it. Granted, that “please” is still loaded with plenty of forceful intent, and the Doctor demonstrates later that she’s no slouch when it comes to dealing with aliens who reject her compassion, but the way she does it all is distinct from her male counterparts. Even David Tennant’s Doctor, well known for always offering his adversaries a way out before subjecting them to fates worse than death, largely demanded rather than discussed.

Beyond the Doctor herself, the episode bears examples of women being lauded as role models. Grace comments on teenager Yaz’s employment as a police officer, noting the young woman’s done well for herself at such an age, in contrast to the demeaning dismissal of Yaz’s older male commanding officer. The book-ended cold open of the episode shows Ryan’s YouTube video honouring his grandmother as the best person he’s ever known, a notion further unpacked by Graham’s touching eulogy to his wife. Without beating its audience over the head, Doctor Who signals a keen focus on demonstrating the inspiration of women, not just for young girls, but for anyone watching. It’s a focus I want to keep seeing as we go further into the season and into Whittaker’s tenure (given that at least one future episode will feature Rosa Parks, this seems likely).

Which, as I said, couldn’t have come at a better time. The global conversation right now is situated around the ongoing strive for gender equity and recognition of women, shifting the balance away from oppresive male paradigms. Part of that shift must inevitably occur within the minds of the next generation of men and boys, those who will hopefully embody greater ideals of empathy, equality and respect than what many of us currently represent. Doctor Who is a show for everyone, attracting one of the most diverse viewerships in popular culture, and that should entail that the values of the show – and thus, what is taken away by audiences – be universal.

With that in mind, Whittaker can only be a good thing for everyone watching. Not only can the Thirteenth Doctor help to inspire the girls and women seeing a new heroine taking charge on-screen, but the boys who watch now – who will grow to be the men that can best embody the ideals we need – can absorb the kindness, support and sympathetic candour their hero displays.


All images are property of the BBC and used here for illustrative purposes only.

“A Jedi, like my father before me”: The Star Wars films have an Identity Crisis

This post contains spoilers for The Last Jedi.


Attack of the Clones is the most ironic Star Wars title of all.

Episode II ranks regularly as one of the worst films of the franchise. It’s stodgily acted, goes hell for leather on the CGI, has an at-times nonsensical story and is not an intellectually or viscerally satisfying movie. Even as popcorn entertainment – which is, by and large, the franchise’s stock in trade – the film doesn’t do well, at least until that last twenty minutes of Clone War ‘splosions and far too many lightsabers.

But at least, compared to both what came before and after, it’s doing something different. Not necessarily well, and most of its storytelling decisions are drawn from a well of dumb, but different nonetheless. The political intrigue on Coruscant and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s secret mission to Kamino and beyond don’t really have antecedents within the films that came before, and there’s certainly no other Star Wars film that puts as much of a focus on the romance (which is, provably, for the better). For a movie that’s part of a franchise dedicated to reliving and copying what’s already been done, I’d argue that Attack of the Clones is the least similar of its brethren.

We know that Star Wars lives and dies on the power of its nostalgia. The sequel trilogy was bankrolled by Disney as a deliberate throwback to what made the series great back in the 70s and 80s; no more of this Clone War crap or any trade tarriffs and dry political bullshit. The Force Awakens, for all its innovations and social progression – for starters, having a central trio with no white guys as the heroes – is more or less treading a lot of the same ground that A New Hope spent its time on. There’s even a lot of that at work in the new expanded universe, with classic writers like Timothy Zahn being enlisted to give us the origin story of the character he made his name from back in the 90s, in an attempt to draw old-hand readers into the new continuity.

It might seem like I’m taking Disney’s work to task, but the truth is I love the majority of their output since they acquired Lucasfilm. I enjoyed The Force Awakens and loved The Last Jedi (not as in love with Rogue One, which gets progressively worse every time I watch it). The novels and comics are (mostly) quite good, and do a great job filling the space left by the absence of the original expanded universe. There’s every reason to love the nostalgibaiting Disney use as their primary approach to the galaxy far, far away.

But at the end of the day, what does that make Star Wars about?

That’s a dumb question; of course we know what it’s about. A decades-spanning space opera about the eternal struggle between good and evil, mostly centred on a prophetically-powerful bloodline created by immaculate conception. We’ve known since 1977 what Star Wars is about.

What we don’t know, and what Disney are going to have to decide, is what the franchise is about.

Say what you will about Attack of the Clones and its wooden acting, bad romance and overuse of CGI. Speak ill of the prequels as a whole if you like, since Lord knows I do at every opportunity. But at least they, and the original trilogy they were connected to, had a purpose: the prequels told the story of Darth Vader, which informed the original trilogy’s story about Luke Skywalker, all taking place within that eternal good and evil struggle. The identity of the franchise, at least as far as its films were concerned, was clear and readily understood.

So when The Force Awakens dropped in 2015 as an almost point-for-point retread of A New Hope, the immediate thought was that we were in for more of the same. Not only did director JJ Abrams smash the nostalgia button with a mallet, we also knew this was the start of a Disneyfied franchise. We’d already had seven years’ experience with the Marvel Cinematic Universe at that point, and those films are more or less copies of each other in terms of structure, tone and plot developments (though if early buzz is any indicator, it seems Black Panther might buck that trend a little). The following year saw the release of Rogue One, a standalone story that drew much of its audience power from being a literal prologue to A New Hope by featuring almost every element of that film, up to and including Darth Vader’s original voice actor. As I said before, I like a lot of what Disney’s put out since 2015, but it was all comfort food. Familiar, safe, warming.

The two films were coupled with the announcements of not only Episodes VIII and IX, but also of a Han Solo standalone film, another about Boba Fett, and rumours of a third involving Obi-Wan Kenobi, the latter even potentially starring Ewan McGregor back in his Jedi robes. It served at the time to make one thing clear: the Star Wars film franchise identity was now firmly rooted in sanctifying those original six films and the story they’d created. If Marvel can make cookie-cutter capefilms with little substantial variety between them, then why can’t George Lucas’ magnum opus? Those copies, explicit and derivative, sell like hot cakes, so there’s no reason to break from that mold.

That made the surprises of 2017s The Last Jedi all the more potent. Yes, it copped a lot of the same accusations as Awakens did in being a derivative film; a friend of mine likened it to a hybrid of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and to a point he’s not exactly wrong. But the film seemed to consciously buck that nostalgic security blanket that Awakens and Rogue One hid beneath, dismissing almost every callback or hint at a replica of the original mythology that JJ Abrams introduced in the previous film. Given the mystery surrounding her parents, the prior movies had trained us to expect Rey to be a Skywalker and to follow a similar path to Luke; turns out she’s a nobody whose late parents were drunkards. Kylo Ren seemed primed to turn back to the Light Side, in a confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoke that near-completely copied the climax of Return of the Jedi; nope, Kylo’s full evil, yo. A confrontation with the First Order on a white planet seems like a distracting tactic so the Rebellion can flee, a la The Battle of Hoth; nah, the Rebels are making their last stand on Crait and, until Luke shows up, are pretty sure they’re going to lose (also, Hoth had snow and Crait had salt – differences, people). Part of why I loved the film so much was because it had a foot in both camps, giving me the nostalgic pandering that I expected along with the newer twists on the formula that I didn’t.

The similarities between The Last Jedi and its forebears are inescapable, but I’d argue that the film does enough that it hints at new directions for next time. Director Rian Johnson is a creative storyteller and a huge Star Wars fan, so those little hints of transgression from the replication of the past convinced me that he’s more concerned with newness, rather than nostalgibaiting, even if the former comes disguised within the latter. One could almost call Johnson as the leader of a rebellion in and of itself. Retroactively, that made the announcement of his own Star Wars trilogy a welcome one.

But that potentially fresh approach directly refutes both the model that Disney have fashioned with Star Wars and Marvel, and the road map they’ve laid out for Star Wars‘ future. Abrams is back for Episode IX, and while I have no doubt it’ll be great, chances are good that it’ll go back to the well for its story rather than forge one of its one. If the recently-released Solo film teaser shows us anything, it’s that the film looks content to soak in the same nostalgia bath that Rogue One wallowed in. This morning’s announcement of DB Weiss and Dan Benioff also getting their own run of Star Wars films – earned off the back of their work as Game of Thrones showrunners – hasn’t really told us anything, but if they’ve been hired to put their Thrones-style sensibilities into the Star Wars universe, we could potentially be looking at a franchise content to not only copy itself, but also to copy other franchises. I apprehensively await the gore-spurting lightsaber fights and Wookiee sexposition.

To call Star Wars derivative is nothing new; most good stories are ones that borrow from others. At length in his fantastic book, Chris Taylor documents the filmic, artistic and structural influences that went into George Lucas creating the original films, some of them blatantly ripped off from the source material. We also expect a franchise to keep creating new texts for both its fandom and its stakeholders; the MCU will probably be making films and TV shows long after the heat death of the universe. But Star Wars right now is in a period of awkward transition, where one of its tentpole installments hints at a desire for change while the others contently remain in the familiar. A franchise spawns a lot of replicas, but there’s nothing to say that it can’t make something aberrant, either.

Going forward, Disney needs to decide what kind of identity the Star Wars film franchise is going to have. Will it be content to make copies of copies of copies of itself for as long as we’re keen to throw money at them, or is there a genuine impulse to explore strange new worlds and to seek out new civilisations? (shit, wrong franchise) All of this might be conjecture, since we have no idea yet what kind of narrative thrusts that Johnson and Benioff & Weiss’ respective films are going to have. But they’ll undoubtedly be a good indicator of the kind of film franchise Star Wars is going to end up being, for better or worse.

 

“This is for me, for all I did to make it here”: The Quiet Feminism of Horizon Zero Dawn

The following contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn.


About an hour into the post-apocalyptic robot dinosaur hunting simulator Horizon Zero Dawn, the protagonist, Aloy, commences a coming of age ritual. On the cusp of The Proving, the trial which will elevate her from despised outcast to proud Brave of the Nora tribe, Aloy and the other hopefuls light a lantern to seek blessings from their patron deity, the All-Mother. The hopefuls are told by their Matriarchs that they also light these lanterns to honour their own mothers, who gave them to the world.

Aloy doesn’t have a mother; at least, not one we know much about at this point. The story has alluded to her mother being either missing or dead since Aloy was a baby, leaving her to be adopted and raised by fellow outcast Rost. Inhabiting the traditional Obi-Wan role, Rost spends the opening hour of the game – which spans the better part of two decades in-universe – teaching Aloy how to hunt, gather resources and survive in the world. The player follows this bonding journey between surrogate father and daughter, culminating in Rost pushing Aloy into undertaking The Proving, despite knowing that once she becomes a Brave he will never see her again. With this in mind, the Matriarchs prompt the hopefuls to dedicate their lantern-lighting to their mothers. The game then gives the player three dialogue options about who to dedicate the lantern to. The obvious choice for Aloy would be to dedicate hers to Rost. After all, he raised her to be a hunter and a survivor despite never knowing why Aloy was cast out. Aloy wouldn’t be undertaking The Proving if not for him. The player also has the choice of uncertainly offering the lantern to Aloy’s absent mother, even if Aloy has no idea whether her mother still lives.

The final option is for Aloy to dedicate the lantern to herself. This option doesn’t disregard all that Rost has done for her – the game makes it clear throughout that his love for and upbringing of her is never far from her thoughts – nor is it played as a vain or selfish choice. Aloy simply states that she will find the answers she seeks, taking charge of her own destiny. Rather than honour a parental figure, Aloy chooses to honour herself, stating that “This is for me, for all I did to get here, and the answers I’ll get after I win The Proving”. Noted feminist author bell hooks argues that ‘[i]f any female feels she need anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency’ (2000, p. 95). Though hooks was referring more to the sexual liberation of women from men and society in that particular passage, the core idea is one that affirms the kind of self-affirming choice that Aloy makes.

Aloy’s simple, assertive choice – affirming her sense of agency – foreshadows a lot of the feminist qualities which make Horizon Zero Dawn such a fantastic game.

When I use the terms feminist and feminism here, I’m ultimately referring to the ideology of advocating women’s rights in order to secure equality for all genders. In her paper ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’ (1988), Karen Offen investigates how feminism is a term ultimately situated in a history of female protest against male-dominated control. After exploring some of this history, Offen comes to a historically-influenced definition of feminism (pp. 151-152), seeing that:

[F]eminism emerges as both an ideology and a movement for sociopolitical change based on a critical analysis of male privilege and women’s subordination within any given society… Feminism is necessarily pro-woman. However, it does not follow that it must be anti-man… Feminism makes claims for a rebalancing between women and men of the social, economic, and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity, but with respect for their differences.

With this in mind, I want to take a look at how Horizon Zero Dawn is an inherently feminist game, which aims to quietly and effectively depict the kind of gender rebalancing Offen describes without drawing obvious attention to it, and to normalise that equality.

Though there’s a lot to be said about the game’s narrative in general, its inclusive nature deserves special attention. This is the first time in a long time where I’ve played a game which takes these equalising factors as read, rather than spotlighting them as subverting real world social norms. There are a host of NPCs and background characters from a diverse range of ethnic and gendered backgrounds, and outside of one or two minor examples there isn’t a substantial focus on distinguishing or discriminating against characters based on their race or gender. Not only is Aloy a feminist protagonist who is empowered by her agency, but equality is ingrained in the social fabric of the game’s world.

It’s made clear early on that women possess significant authority in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn. In broad strokes, characters worship the powerful All-Mother. Aloy’s tribe, the Nora, is governed by female elders, and is referred to as a respected, if isolated, society. The Nora are led by a trio of wise Matriarchs, their lands are all named after parts of the Mother (Mother’s Heart, Mother’s Crown, etc) and their rituals, including The Proving, are dedicated to honouring the life given to hopefuls by their maternal figures. In terms of micro details, the game’s world is populated by numerous empowered female characters. Of particular note is the stern and martially-proficient Sona, the military chief of the Nora. Sona is an intelligent, bold and strategic leader, who possesses agency and is itinerantly respected by other characters.

Female characters are rarely undermined or questioned because of their sex, and when they are the implications are positioned as negative. The player doesn’t encounter the kind of boorish characters who feel the patriarchal need to assert control over or objectify women, characters who are common in many other video games. Aloy herself is not overly sexualised, wearing various tribal armours which do not work to objectify her physical attributes or render her an object of the male gaze. According to research conducted by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz in 2015, viewing the heroine of a narrative as sexualised or objectified ‘is associated with decreased egalitarian gender role beliefs’ (p. 213). By avoiding this pitfall and not making Aloy and the majority of the female cast into objects of sexual objectification – a fate which has befallen a number of prior video game heroines – the narrative maintains credibility as an egalitarian, gender-equal game.

By and large, Horizon Zero Dawn does not try to distinguish Aloy’s power as notable for anything other than her talents and abilities as a Seeker of the Nora tribe, as opposed to singling out her gender. Although the virtues of being a woman are nonetheless highlighted and revered by the game, Aloy is seen as a strong person, rather than a strong woman, as the latter is seen to be commonplace rather than an exception. On the rare occasion that somebody does slight Aloy – usually for her prior status as an outcast – their behaviour is swiftly condemned. A male guard reports an ambush to his commander, who then asks (rather than tells) Aloy to investigate. The guard gives his report to the commander while ignoring Aloy, prompting the male commander to swiftly chastise the guard and tell him to look at and speak to Aloy as the person who will be conducting the investigation. A male war-chief earlier in the game similarly belittles Aloy as an outcast, before she immediately asserts her Seeker authority and puts him in his place.

On the subject of outcasts, the one major exception to Horizon Zero Dawn‘s egalitarianism is in the area of class. The idea of class separation – between the Nora inhabitants and the outcasts and between the Nora and the other tribes of the world – is a recurring theme which is unpacked and criticised throughout the game. This is seen mainly through Aloy’s status as an outcast within the Nora, with many characters refusing to talk directly to her when the player attempts to interact with them. One could also interpret this theme as having racist overtones, seen when several characters view the Nora as a somewhat backwater tribe in comparison to others. After Aloy arrives at the Aztec-themed city of Meridian, she ascends the steps of the palace to meet the city’s leader, the Sun-King, while an array of nobles look on and complain about a Nora tribe member – seen by them as a primitive society – being allowed within their walls. One of the first things the player sees the Sun-King do when he meets Aloy is to decry the assembled aristocracy as a host of immature and ungrateful brats, welcoming Aloy to Meridian with open arms and requesting her assistance.

The most potent quality of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s depiction of gender equality and inclusion is its quiet nature. The game’s narrative rarely trumpets the interaction between men and women in different levels of authority as anything other than normal. Gender infrequently enters the narrative’s discourse, and in the rare instances where it does there is little doubt that the game does not favour using gender to depict inequality. Social (and, by the game’s end, a degree of cultural and political) inclusion is an assumed process rather than something deserving of a spotlight.

Ultimately, Horizon Zero Dawn excels in its depiction of gender equality. Though there is power in a text signalling its intentions as a polemic against social and cultural exclusion and inequality, there is also potency in a text deciding the affirmative, ideal result of that polemic as something assumed rather than foregrounded, something illustratively shown rather than didactically told. In this way, the game seeks to normalise equality. Aloy embodies this equality well, from the game’s opening moments – when she attempts to connect with all the Nora despite her outcast status – to its closing ones – when Aloy manages to unite the world’s inhabitants in a final battle against evil. Horizon Zero Dawn is already a fantastic game, but thanks to its gender-positive subtext, it becomes something far more special – and, crucially, far more rebalanced.

REFERENCES

hooks, b. 2000, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Massachusetts: South End Press.

Offen, K. 1988, ‘Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach’, Signs vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 119-157.

Pennell, H. & Behm-Morawitz, E. 2015, ‘The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women’, Sex Roles no. 72, pp. 211-220.

The Five Lords: Seeing the World

To celebrate hitting 50,000 words on my latest draft of The Five Lords, here’s another scene for you to experience with your eyeballs. This is separate to the scene I posted here a few months back; where before we were with Koron and his captors on the continent of Caras, this scene takes place in Kantis, the eastern continental neighbour of Caras. The scene is part of several Interregnums spaced throughout the story, where characters across the world, far away from our protagonists, show how they’re surviving the aftermath of the Great Punishment.

 

Enjoy!


 

Image taken from Most Beautiful Places: http://mostbeautifulplacesintheworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Winter-sun-at-Broadway-Tower-by-skipnclick.jpg
Image taken from Most Beautiful Places: http://mostbeautifulplacesintheworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Winter-sun-at-Broadway-Tower-by-skipnclick.jpg

 

It was a beautiful morning for all of Kantis.

            In Mimia’s mind, that was saying something. Kantis was the second-largest continent in the world, succeeded only by their western neighbours of Caras. The nation itself consisted of a multitude of ecological zones and weather systems; one city-state could be falling victim to the fiercest storm known to mankind, whilst another on the opposite end of the continent could be enjoying perfect seaside weather. For the day to be unilaterally gorgeous for all parts of Kantis was no small feat.

            Mimia knew the day was so good because she consulted her World Bowl, filled to the midway with Seeing Water. It cast her gaze high above the countries of the Kantis Empire, giving her a Lord’s-Eye view of the ground. No clouds, no rain, no encroaching storms. As far as she could tell, Kantis was in for one of the best days it had ever been gifted since the Punishment.

            She smiled, leaning back in her rocking chair, the World Bowl on the table in front of her. The room was at the top of the local Seer’s Tower, several kilometres inland from Kantis’s easternmost shore. The town of Kalab, famed in old days for its spicy food and hospitable locals, lay in ruins not six hundred metres from where the Tower stood.

            The thought of that made her smile ebb a little, but not much. A good day meant the Five – or, at least, one or two of them – were pleased.

            Loud footsteps from the Tower’s staircase told her Strenna had returned from her hunt. Sure enough, the younger woman reached the top of the stairs with an expertly-slain deer wrapped around her shoulders. She deposited it on the floor in front of Mimia’s table wordlessly, then took a long gulp from the water pitcher on the mantelpiece.

            ‘How many were there?’ Mimia asked, leaning back and closing her eyes for a moment. The breeze from outside gently kissed at her cheeks pleasantly.

            Strenna swallowed loudly, then regained her breath. ‘I counted sixteen, at least. This one was a little slow.’ She prodded the deer gently with the tip of her boot. ‘We should be fine for a few days.’

            Mimia nodded slowly, eyes still closed. ‘Can you remember the last time we had a breeze like this?’

            Strenna put down the pitcher and stepped out onto the balcony. From there, Mimia knew she had a full view of the ocean, the shore and the border jungles that lined it for kilometres. The younger woman stood there a moment before turning back to Mimia and wryly remarking, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’

            ‘Not these days, no.’

            ‘Good. Means I don’t have to try hard.’ More footsteps told Mimia that Strenna had walked over to the table, probably to peer into the World Bowl. She confirmed that by asking, ‘See anything good today?’

            ‘Only the lovely day ahead of us.’

            ‘What did you give up for it?’

            Mimia opened her eyes, regarding Strenna with sardonic expression. ‘If I could tell you, I would.’

            ‘Uh huh.’ Strenna flicked a finger through the water. ‘Seems an odd price.’

            ‘Maybe. But it’s worth paying. I’ve told you that the last fifteen times.’

            ‘If I could, you know I’d throw this thing out,’ Strenna said seriously.

            ‘You’ve told me that the last fifteen times, too.’

            ‘Yeah, well, history has a way of repeating.’ Irritated, the younger woman went down to start skinning the deer. Her knife flashed quickly into her hand before making the first cut.

            ‘Do you really have to do that here?’ Mimia asked lightly.

            Strenna grunted in the affirmative. ‘Might attract bandits if they see me downstairs. I think I saw tracks near one of the jungles.’

            That wasn’t good. Mimia hadn’t presumed they’d be found so quickly. Granted, Strenna might only have seen animal tracks that looked like those of ruffians, but it was better not to take chances. They’d have maybe one more day before they’d have to leave.

            They still hadn’t found what Mimia had come here for, and the nearest Seer’s Tower was six days by horse gallop. Time was running out.

            ‘Are you sure they were bandits?’ she asked.

            ‘Pretty sure,’ Strenna replied, cutting off parts of the deer’s flank.

            ‘How sure is pretty sure?’

            ‘Decent chance. Why?’

            ‘I need to know for certain.’

            ‘Then use the Bowl.’

            That startled Mimia. In the four months since they’d first met and started traveling together, Strenna had never suggested using the Bowl as an option for anything. Fifteen separate conversations had given Mimia fifteen impressions that Strenna disapproved of using it. But now she’d apparently changed her mind, and in the space of a few seconds, no less.

            Strenna seemed to catch that she’d thrown Mimia a little. ‘I’m allowed to change my mind, y’know.’

            ‘Of course,’ Mimia said, ‘but it’s just…surprising.’

            The knife cut more off the deer, peeling skin back from the pink, raw muscle underneath. ‘You’re clearly intent on using it to find what you’re looking for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from you, it’s that you can’t be shaken from a path once you start walking it.’

            Mimia smiled lightly. Good thing she’s learned something, at least. ‘It’s for the greater good.’

            ‘Sure it is.’ Strenna didn’t sound convinced. ‘Just do your thing, if you’re gonna do it.’

            It seemed trivial, now Mimia thought about it, but she couldn’t go outside if there really were ruffians out there. The power of the Bowl was only meant for strong magical purposes, given what it took to use it. But hadn’t she only just now used it to see the weather, itself a trivial thing these days?

            It’s beautiful. But maybe that’s a key.

            To see the tracks from here would not require a large memory. The weather today, and the picturesque view of Kantis, would do.

            Mimia clasped both hands to the rim, filled her mind with the memory of seeing Kantis, and poured it into the Bowl.

            What little of the water that had been flicked out when Strenna drew her finger through it returned. The clear water was replaced by the image of sand, small dunes piled near a beaten dirt path. Small footprints led across them, from out of the image and into the nearby jungle. She leaned in, looking closer, and saw…

            Yes. Definitely bandits; humans, at any rate. Those tracks were too narrow to be any local animal.

            Mimia stood from the table, walked around Strenna’s dressing of the deer and pulled the doors of the balcony shut. ‘We’re staying in today, and tonight. We’ll leave in the morning.’

            Strenna nodded, seemingly unsurprised. ‘Shame. It’s going to be such a nice day today.’

            ‘Oh,’ Mimia frowned, moving back to the table, ‘is it?’

            The water had gone clear again.

Fantasy and Imagination

Imagine a tiny little pocket of unreality, where the everyday and the supernatural intersect to create something unique. Imagine this pocket existing in a gallery in Glebe, where you can enter it and experience all those weird and wonderful intersections.

 

Good thing is, you don’t have to imagine it. You can actually go there. This is a thing that you can do.

 

Combining the mundane with the monstrous, the Fantasy and Imagination exhibition at The Shop Gallery on 112 Glebe Point Rd, Glebe, is a showcase of some of Sydney’s most innovative artistic talent. The theme is a hybrid of reality and the truly weird, featuring feral girls, shielded dragons, literal Internet trolls and luminescent cats. Over a dozen local artists feature in the exhibition.

Feral Girl by Laura Wellington, one of Fantasy and Imagination's emergent talents.
Feral Girl by Laura Wellington, one of Fantasy and Imagination’s emergent talents.

It’s a treat for the eyes as well as the mind; handy little blurbs detail the talent behind the art and the motivation for their respective expressions. I found it fascinating to pick apart the visuals with the subtextual, especially since my visual art critique skills extend mostly to ‘Oh wow, that’s really pretty!’ Thankfully, these blurbs are as illustrious as the artwork they’re describing, and do a much better job conveying their respective wonders than I can.

 

While everything fits the theme appositely, the variance of art styles was welcome. Fantasy and Imagination involves a plethora of stylistic choices – including hand-drawn, computer-aided and, in one welcome offering, sumi ink painting – that perfectly match the artists’ personal expressions.

 

I was lucky enough to attend the Grand Opening night on December 17, but the exhibition is still running until Christmas Eve between 10am and 8pm. If you’re a fan of fairies riding giant snails, psychic hippos or hipster elves, I highly recommend you check it out. Go experience Sydney’s little pocket of unreality while it’s here.

 

LINKS

The Shop Gallery website

Fantasy and Imagination sub-page

The Five Lords: People Skills

I’ve been writing a story for the past couple of years. It’s the beginning of what I hope will be an epic pentalogy of medieval fantasy and fantasy western (that’ll make more sense once you read the finished story). Notice I said ‘hope’ in that last sentence; there is every possibility this story, once complete, will be a confusing mess of self-indulgent confusingness. The fact that I use words like confusingness should clue you in to the lack of writing caliber present in this story.

The series is called The Five Lords, named after the five androgynous gods who watch over humanity. The first book, Storms, takes place a few months after an event called the Great Punishment; the Five have destroyed most of humanity, at the height of their hubris and selfishness. Small pockets of survivors eke out livings and attempt to find homes, while others subsist on indulging whatever pursuits they wish in this newly unconstrained and blighted world.

One of the latter is Koron of Burning Sigil. He’s a Brother of the Blood, an ancient order of mystic swordfighters with strict ritual practices and beliefs (think if the Jedi were crossed with Shaolin monks, only a little more jerkish and possessed of the super-blood of Claire from Heroes). Koron was part of a group of survivors, but he’s been cast out for various reasons and is now spending his days hunting wild animals. Because, really, why not?


Image taken from Laughing Crow Permaculture: https://laughingcrowpermaculture.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/a-linguistic-permaculture-of-the-oak/

He’d walked for days.

            This was not the worst situation he’d ever found himself in – in terms of the immediate surroundings, anyway. He wasn’t stranded without a horse in the Abranthi Desert, nor was he at the bottom of a mine shaft in Skalleck. He was walking through a forest not far from Ascoth, with a full pack and waterskin on his person, a sharp sword on his back. In terms of where he physically was in the world, this was not as bad as things had been before.

            But right now, he could not think of a worse time in his life. His Brother was dead. The camp had abandoned him. Commander Drake would probably kill him if they ever met again. As far as Koron knew, he was the last surviving Brother of the Blood. The mythologies and lessons of an ancient, powerful order older than most of the rest of the world now rested solely with him.

            Koron did not want that responsibility. Right now, he did not want any responsibility. Right now, he wanted to kill something.

            He’d found an appropriate target last night; a scather lizard, long and quadripedal. Its lengthy tongue had probed around several trees during the day, gathering food for the family Koron knew must be nesting somewhere nearby. Scather lizards usually left their nest for days at a time, returning with enough food stored in their digestive pouch for the young to survive for weeks.

            The lizard, in full daylight, was a dark, burnished yellow with the odd black or brown scale, like a badly roasted cob of corn. It had light violet eyes above a wide mouth that hid a long, sticky purple tongue. The tongue snagged food – insects and small animals, usually – and swallowed it into the digestive pouch, where it would be slowly suffocated until it could be regurgitated for the younger lizards.

            The pouch was on a particular side for the lizards – left for male, right for female – and became engorged the more the lizard swallowed. This one’s pouch was on the left, and looked fairly full. That told Koron the nest was close by. It might have seemed ruthless to be hunting this lizard and its family; scather lizards had no edible meat or use for their scales. They were considered a pest given how frequently they consumed other wildlife, and the caustic secretion on their tongues had been to known to have a deleterious effect on human skin.

            So he stalked the scather lizard, resting a hand gently on the dagger Ordo had allegedly used to kill himself. The sword would have been overkill, and right now Koron relished a challenge.

            The lizard ponderously waddled towards a giant crack in an ancient greatoak a few feet away. It squirmed against the ill-made opening, squeezing its bulk through and slipping its tail in quietly afterwards. Koron bent his head towards the tree trunk, hearing tiny little cries and snaps alongside the repulsive regurgitation sound the parent lizard made as it gave its children its hard-hunted food. The little cries became muted as the babies started eating.

            To kill this scather lizard and its family may have been somewhat strange, possibly even cruel. He doubted Ordo would have approved. But then, like Drake had said, things weren’t up to Ordo where Koron was concerned anymore. He could hunt and kill a bunch of lizards if he wanted. Who could stop him now?

            He slowly unsheathed the dagger and prepared to stalk towards the trunk. The lizards kept eating, and it was only through his Blood-enhanced hearing that Koron heard the arrow whistle towards him.

            He threw himself backwards and onto the floor of the forest, the arrow just narrowly missing his nose and striking the ground a short distance to his left. In response, he replaced Ordo’s dagger and retrieved a throwing knife; the blade travelled end-over-end in the direction the arrow had shot from, towards a cluster of ferns. There was a dull thud, followed by something heavy hitting the underbrush.

            Koron’s hand was already firmly grasping the hilt of his sword, swinging it over from the sheath at his back. He held it two-handed and charged into the underbrush, swordtip aimed ahead of him. No colour besides the dark and muted autumnal leaves greeted his eyes, and thus no confirmation of a kill from his throwing knife. He stepped into the ferns where his knife had flown, heart pumping, eyes searching frantically.

            Come on, you whoreson. Shoot a man while he’s

            There. He saw it; a body lying face-first, its legs splayed. It had obviously been caught mid-run. The dull glint of sunlight reflecting off metal in the back of the body told him where his throwing knife had gone.

            Koron smirked, a little disappointed. That had been too easy. He’d’ve preferred a chase, maybe even a duel. Something to liven up his current state of mind.

            His sword went back into its sheath while he stepped up to examine the body. With a quick motion he retrieved the throwing knife, embedded almost as hard into the body’s back as if he’d stabbed the person close-up. The corpse wore dull brown clothes, nothing terribly interesting. Probably an idiot bandit who thought I’d be an easy mark.

            He started to shift the body over onto its back, but stopped halfway. The figure had no face, but rather a stitched calico flat that had been rounded and stuff with something firm. A dummy.

            He rose from his crouch, hand rising to his sword again. Before he could brush the metal, there was a click behind him. It sounded an awful lot like a crossbow.

            ‘I really wouldn’t,’ a woman’s voice warned him from behind.

            Koron closed his eyes slowly, gritting his teeth. Taken in by an elementary trick. Idiot. ‘Crossbows don’t fire arrows,’ he observed.

            ‘No, they don’t,’ the assailant agreed. ‘This one does, though.’

            ‘Horseshit,’ Koron told her. ‘You’ve got friends nearby.’

            ‘A foul mouth on this one!’ the woman called out. ‘We’d best keep our manners about!’

            Five figures dropped from the trees, each dressed in clothing similar to the dummy. Koron made out three women and two men; the women all held crossbows, one of the men carried a yew longbow, and the last man had both hands on the hilt of a sheathed broadsword at his waist. Everything looked unremarkable about them except for the last man’s sword, which made Koron’s eyes widen slightly.

            The pommel bore a very distinctive purple gemstone, reflecting the light as brilliantly as a flaming torch in a darkened cave. The sheen of it was known as heartlight, named not for the organ but for the feeling it instilled in people who looked at it. Those of righteous disposition were bolstered by its luminescence, whilst those of a fearful or evil nature had their inherent cowardice amplified.

            Heartlight gems were as rare as they were invaluable, and usually only found in the pommels of swords belonging to king, queens and their retinue. Koron’s enhanced sight allowed him to see the edge of a bird’s wing sigil wrapped around the hilt, twining the edge of its feathers into the metal of the pommel.

            This man was, or had been, a guardsman of the King in Ravensweep. Given the weathered sword, he judged the man to have been fairly high within the guardsmen hierarchy. Maybe even a Guard Captain himself.

            Should that garner respect, or scorn? It wasn’t as if non-Blood lessers were entirely worthy of his respect. The Blood were above and beyond simple mortality. Even with a Heartlight gem – which would not affect Koron in the slightest – this man was probably nothing special now. It wasn’t as if he had a King to guard anymore.

            The others all watched intently as the lead guardsman, hands still resting at his hilt, strode forward confidently to look Koron up and down. The man was tall, lean and weathered like his sword. A salt-and-pepper beard framed a strong chin beneath faded charcoal hair. His knuckles, in prominent view on the sword hilt, were scarred from countless fistfights. He smirked, but not in a condescending fashion, his sky blue eyes glittering. ‘What’s a sworn Brother doing this far from the Temple?’

            The armour and sigil on Koron’s own sword probably gave it away. He suppressed the urge to bite off a retort. ‘Hunting.’

            ‘You mean that thing?’ The guardsman pointed in the direction of the greatoak trunk containing the scather lizard. ‘Not going to get much meat from him.’

            ‘I didn’t say I was hunting for food.’

            ‘True,’ the lead guardsman admitted, stroking his beard thoughtfully. ‘Does the Brother have a name, or should we make one up for him?’

            ‘My name,’ Koron shot back, quicker than he’d intended, ‘is go fuck yourself.’

            The others laughed quietly, right before the woman holding him hostage slapped him across the back of the head. It stung in the cool afternoon breeze. Koron ground his teeth and closed his eyes, opening them once the stinging subsided. She had one hell of a slap in her.

            ‘Well, Go Fuck Yourself,’ the lead guardsman said amusedly, ‘my name is Steth. My companions are Ansel, Kem, Jessa and Karryll. The one with the bow at your back is Tal.’

            For emphasis, Tal pressed the end of the crossbow bolt hard into Koron’s back. ‘Hello.’

            What a merry band of jolly robbers. ‘Wonderful. I’m sure I’ll forget those names in due course.’

            Tal slapped him again, harder this time. He felt it might leave a lump once it subsided. The others laughed again, Steth joining them this time.

            I swear, Koron promised himself, they’ll all lie bloodied at my feet when they let me go.

            ‘You’re not a very likeable young man, are you?’ Steth observed. ‘Far too quick to condemn and threaten. I’d be more accommodating to your captors, were I you.’

            Koron glared at him. ‘Good thing you’re not me, then.’

            ‘Also true. For one thing, I’m much prettier. I would like to get to know you, though.’

            ‘What for?’

            Steth shrugged, seeming far too nonchalant. ‘It’s not every day that one of the Blood strays across our path. Even rarer that we find one without a sibling present. I thought your kind hunted in pairs?’

            So they think as lowly of me as I do of them. Excellent. At least there’s that common ground. ‘Who says I came alone?’

            ‘We’ve been watching you for the past half-day.’ The other man with them – Ansel, was it? – piped up. ‘There’s no-one but us and you for kilometres around. We move fast in the trees.’

            ‘So you’re elf-born, as well as stupid?’ Koron spat.

            Ansel raised an eyebrow. ‘Stupid?’

            ‘You’ve captured a Brother of the Blood. The Five don’t look kindly on that sort of thing.’

            ‘Last I checked,’ Steth cut in, ‘the Five Lords in general weren’t really to do with your Brothers and Sisters, were they? That was more a Lord of Blood thing, specifically. Hence the name, I guess.’

            This man bore himself with near-regal air; there was no doubt in Koron’s mind that he was of high birth, almost certainly an upper-ranked guardsman from Ravensweep. He commanded immediate respect from the others, and they all interacted convivially whilst following his orders. But he was too casual, speaking in a way that one might reserve for a conversation between men at a bar. He was observing things about Koron like Morgan might, without the slightly crazed undertones. Had Steth been a full Guard Captain, he should have beaten Koron bloody at the first quip and left him broken in their wake. Ravensweep Guards had a reputation as being swift and brutal when necessary, especially if their honour was impugned.

            Not this man. He simply nodded, looking away more thoughtfully as he pondered his observation about the Five. He happened to be right – Koron’s brethren and the Lord were not same-named by coincidence – but Koron wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that.

            ‘You think we should just kill him?’ Tal asked calmly, prodding him again with the crossbow. ‘I don’t think he’ll be saying much with fists or friendship from us.’

            ‘True,’ Ansel agreed. ‘Might as well kill him and be on our way.’

            Koron laughed bitterly. ‘So much for high and noble guardsmen.’

            Steth blinked. ‘Excuse me?’

            ‘You’d kill a man you find in a forest,’ Koron replied, ‘and call yourselves noble. I wonder what your King might think, were he still alive.’

            There was a long, protracted moment of silence from all six of them. Koron grinned, having finally hit a nerve. Quite pleased with himself that he’d managed-

            ‘Who said we’re here from the King?’ Steth asked.

            Koron’s grin vanished. ‘What?’

            ‘Who said,’ Steth repeated, ‘that we’re here because of any King?’

            ‘Or Queen, for that matter,’ Tal added.

            Steth nodded. ‘Or Queen. Tell me, who said that at any point?’

            It was a rare moment where Koron was temporarily lost for words. He tried to recover quickly, lest they think this an unexpected weakness. ‘Your sword. That Heartlight gem could only be wielded by one of intense emotional affect. It’s given to Guard Captains in Ravensweep.’

            Steth examined the purple gemstone thoughtfully, as if viewing it for the first time. ‘Yes. That is true, isn’t it?’ He pulled the sword from its sheathe and examined the light reflecting off the glinting blade. ‘Usually those we come across are deferential when they see this. They think, “Oh, thank the Five! Ravensweep is here to save us!” They don’t usually swear and threaten to kill us. It makes the whole thing much easier.’

            A sinking feeling crept into Koron’s gut. ‘What whole thing?’

            Now it was Steth’s turn to grin, and it was a wholly unsettling expression to be seen on a face that, only a moment, had been jovial and friendly. ‘We’re building something.’

            ‘Something grand,’ Ansel added.

            One of the other women – Kem, maybe – chimed in with, ‘Something that has never been done before.’

            ‘And we need people to do it,’ Tal said from behind Koron’s ear.

            ‘Lots of people,’ one of the other women, Jessa, supplied.

            ‘Quite a lot of people, actually,’ Steth clarified. His sword went back into the sheath. ‘I took this from my employer after the Great Punishment, because she told me it would make things easier. Worth its weight in gold, it is.’ He tapped the hilt appreciatively. ‘But clearly it won’t work on you. Must be that wretched Blood in your veins.’

            Koron lips curled back in a snarl. ‘If you’d like, I could show you what it can really do.’

            ‘A tempting, if violent, offer, but I don’t think so,’ Steth refused. ‘I think I’d rather just take you with us to the building site. You’ll understand soon enough. You’ll probably even thank us, in fact.’

            Tal hauled Koron up and held him fast, the crossbow still nuzzling his back. She took her other hand and deftly unclasped the belt holding his sword to his back, before grabbing it by the sheath and tossing it to Karryll. ‘Don’t touch the hilt,’ Tal warned as Karryll caught it. Then, to Ansel she said, ‘Would you mind?’

            The big man strode forward, long locks of lanky, dirty blonde hair waving in motion. He reached out a massive hand cautiously, retrieving Ordo’s ritual knife from Koron’s waist. As Ansel slipped it into his own belt, Koron’s anger levels tripled. They’d kidnapped him for an insidious construction project, and now they’d taken his Brother’s knife away.

            Yes. They will all die. Somehow, some way, I will kill them all.

            ‘Any other weapons on your person?’ Steth asked casually.

            Other than my trained, bare fists and years of knife-honed combat reflexes, you mean? Koron smirked wryly. ‘Go to hell.’

            Steth matched his expression, then walked towards him. ‘Silly man. I’ve been there already.’

            He rammed his fist into Koron’s head, leaving the Brother to take residence within the utter blackness.

Ferguson: An Opinion on Exposure

I’ve held off diving into the ethical morass that is Ferguson, Missouri for the past two and a bit weeks now. I was ready at the start of it to let fly with the kind of vitriolic, “American law enforcement is f**king stupid” politirant that Will McAvoy might endorse. Those who I spoke to at the time know I was pretty engaged with the tragedy occurring in Ferguson to the point of almost total immersion, or as much immersion as someone on the other side of the world following it through social media can achieve.

Image sourced from http://www.ksdk.com/story/homepage/2014/08/23/cash-raised-for-mo-cop-surpasses-brown-donations/14506401/
Image sourced from http://www.ksdk.com/story/homepage/2014/08/23/cash-raised-for-mo-cop-surpasses-brown-donations/14506401/

But the thing is, I couldn’t. I was angry. I was upset. I was disheartened to be presented with yet another example of both American law and worldwide journalism making their own separate but intertwined colossal failures to enforce and inform, respectively. So anything I posted was going to be imbued with no small measure of bias; hell, even as the dust tentatively starts settling, this piece here will still carry an amount of subjectivity you won’t find from objective news services. I am still upset at what went down, and in parts continues to go down, in Ferguson. So take my opinion and the following writing with however much salt you want to swallow; I’ll say what I’m feeling, and you take it as you will. I am not an authority on the goings-on over there, merely an observer – if you’re keen on more information follow Antonio French, Alderman of the 21st Ward in St Louis and one of the most prolific on-the-ground sources of information during Ferguson’s crucial points over the last fortnight. There’s also a deluge of reposts during the important bits on my own Twitter feed right here.

So, Ferguson. If you’re not at least vaguely informed about what went/is going on there, give this a watch to start with:

Now, while the situation is markedly improved compared to how it was two weeks ago,they’re not at the end yet. From what I’ve heard there are still isolated incidents going on, and a few social efforts – most prominently the HealSTL movement – working to rebuild the community of Ferguson. It’ll be a while before the place is back to full nick again, but they’re getting there.

It’d be very easy for me to rail against the targets most other right-thinking social media critics and internet journalists have taken shots at; the Ferguson police handled the situation poorly, Governor Jay Nixon didn’t act fast enough, the Highway Patrol inflicted an oscillating wave of good and bad stuff from their inception as Ferguson security, and maybe even President Obama himself should’ve stepped in rather than offer a perfunctory

Image sourced from http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article1218594.html
Image sourced from http://www.kansascity.com/news/local/crime/article1218594.html

statement regarding the tragedy of Mike Brown and the need to halt violence. Personally I’m not holding any of them wholly responsible in the body of the article, though I will point out the Ferguson PD were absolute and total morons in their initial handling of the protests, and prosecutor Robert McCulloch deserves a swift kick in the kidneys for getting outraged when the PD were overtaken by Highway Patrol as a more stable and effective form of security.

No, rather than throw bile at those who are and are not responsible for Ferguson’s troubles, I want to give exposure to a point made quite heavily through social media when this thing went down: Lack of awareness.

Image sourced from http://globalnews.ca/news/1512804/dramatic-images-of-outrage-protests-in-ferguson-missouri/
Image sourced from http://globalnews.ca/news/1512804/dramatic-images-of-outrage-protests-in-ferguson-missouri/

Would it surprise you to know only 2 of the roughly dozen or so people I asked about Ferguson initially said they knew what was going on, whilst the other 10 just asked “What’s Ferguson”? No, it wouldn’t surprise you? Nor does it surprise many others, especially through Twitter; for days the events in Ferguson were all but ignored by most save for the social media-savvy and several independent outlets. In Australia, ABC News – my go-to for world and political news and one of the few bastions of actual news dispensation left down under – gave Ferguson a perfunctory mention for two and a half minutes during a radio broadcast early in the week before last. The radio bit was a swift summation of the situation that barely did justice to what was going on, and featured an interview with Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson – who, I should mention, was finger-pointed by several on Twitter as a key source of the police’s contribution to further destabilising the town with goddamn tear gas – with no real depth to it. This is while people were getting gassed, shot at (with rubber bullets), yelled at, threatened, arrested without charge and held in jails for indefinite periods.

While I’m not a regular reader, I’ve been led to believe other big news outlets in the US – like MSNBC, Fox and CNN – didn’t give Ferguson much credence until things got

Image sourced from http://trendingcurrentevents.com/ferguson-missouri-michael-brown-protests-pictures-videos-swat-second-shooting/
Image sourced from http://trendingcurrentevents.com/ferguson-missouri-michael-brown-protests-pictures-videos-swat-second-shooting/

so ugly that the National Guard got called in. If someone would like to correct me, please feel free to do so in the comments. Otherwise, I’m sticking with what I’ve seen and read through various sources that all say the same thing: Ferguson was not given the exposure it needed until things got so out of control that the town fell, for all intents and purposes, under martial law.

Now it’s got a little more coverage, and among others the ABC’s finally deigned to put some headlines on their front page. Better late than never, right?

Image sourced from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/subject-iconic-ferguson-mo-photo-speaks-article-1.1915753
Image sourced from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/subject-iconic-ferguson-mo-photo-speaks-article-1.1915753

Without passing absolute judgment, why do we think coverage was so limited leading up to now? Were the Americans embarrassed at thuglike activities perpetrated by their own police and happening in their backyard? Did international news services skip lightly over it because, as some people I’ve spoken to said, “It didn’t happen in [insert home country here], so why should I care?” Did avoidance occur because initial correspondence happened through Twitter and Facebook, therefore meaning old news would have to take a lead set up by the blase, laissez-faire landscape of social media reporting? Or is it just that having a headline about a black kid getting shot is inconvenient when it bumps an important entertainment story off the front page?

Image sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11036190/Palestinians-tweet-tear-gas-advice-to-protesters-in-Ferguson.html
Image sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11036190/Palestinians-tweet-tear-gas-advice-to-protesters-in-Ferguson.html

All I know is, both the events in Ferguson and the initial reporting of those events were wholly unacceptable. Seemingly ignoring protests and tear-gassing through lack of coverage will not make those things go away. Willfully omitting information about American police exerting unsanctioned violence against protestors won’t help either. Claiming that violence as necessary and throwing in genuine protestors with the looters selfishly taking advantage of the situation, saying they’re all one group to be painted with the same brush, doesn’t make anything better.

One of my favourite quotes from The Newsroom (which, yes, most people think is a terrible show but I happen to adore) is from early in its first episode: “There is nothing more important than a well-informed electorate.” Let’s replace ‘electorate’ with whatever term you want to use encompassing us in a broader global context; world, blogosphere, international collective, whatever. My point is that some of what happened after the initial tragedy of Mike Brown’s shooting could have been avoided if we hadn’t been afraid or unwilling to talk about it, and if the face of the issue could’ve been shown to a broader audience. We, both the Americans and the international audience, needed to be properly informed and take necessary steps.

And to those who say they shouldn’t care because it’s not happening in their country: who says it won’t one day? One of the things most shocking about Ferguson was it was the kind of riot some compared to the civil unrest in

Image sourced from http://www.thewrap.com/keke-palmer-joins-ferguson-protests-after-getting-ripped-for-her-comments-urging-unity/
Image sourced from http://www.thewrap.com/keke-palmer-joins-ferguson-protests-after-getting-ripped-for-her-comments-urging-unity/

the Middle East (!), but occurring ostensibly close to the heart of the North American continent. It happened within the country most noted for being the alleged shining paragon of democracy, the top dog of the UN and the most powerful Western nation on Earth. If we can have a riot requiring the kind of military hardware one might use to invade Iraq inside a small town in the middle of the United States, who the hell says it can’t happen anywhere else?

I’m not really sure what I aim to accomplish with this piece. As I said, I’m pretty close to a lot of the stuff that happened there and a degree of subjectivity inevitably seeps into the writing. On a re-read I feel like I’m kinda rambling here (not exactly different from my usual MO) but I’m going to leave it as it is, somewhere between a thesis and a stream-of-consciousness. Take what you will from it, but understand that unless Missouri, America and the international community can confront this stuff head-on and have a true and honest discourse about it, things will never get better. I hope I never live to see another tear-gassing of honest-to-God peaceful protestors livestreamed through social media due to lack of appropriate news coverage. It might be tough for some, but I want to talk about this.

You should, too.

The Phantom Canon

Star Wars is dead. Long live Star Wars.

It’s been thirty-seven years since Luke Skywalker and his bunch of college friends showed up on our screens, and in that time the universe surrounding George Lucas’ magnum opus expanded to a size three times as large as the Roman Empire and only one quarter as interesting.

Fandoms are wonderful things, and when franchises build further stories for that fandom to enjoy it can either strengthen the artistic integrity of the original IP, or just add a whole lot of chaff to be targeted and ridiculed by fans and fandom foreigners alike. And let’s be honest, Star Wars has a lot of chaff.

Or, rather, had. The Expanded Universe ain’t there no more, aside from that Clone Wars cartoon most right-thinking fans prefer to forget exists.

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Yep, this is all that’s left. The Force help us.

This is old news, but bears scrutiny nonetheless. Was hacking off all the Star Wars tentacles at once a good idea, or should they have picked and chosen which suckers could stay? One sideways glance at Wookieepedia tells you all you need to know: there was a ton of crap with a few gems embedded. Fitting Episode VII into the 60+ years of written, scribbled and video game’d content following Return of the Jedi was never going to happen. I don’t knock Abrams, Lucasfilm or whomever was responsible for pulling the trigger.

I do, however, question why everything pre-Original Trilogy had to get the axe. Unless a plot point for the sequels deals with tying into very old (chronologically-speaking) parts of the Star Wars ‘verse, couldn’t a bunch of events preceding The Phantom Menace still have stuck around? Moving a little further inward, are there things in the gaps between the prequels or original movies that could be salvaged? Of course, carefully selecting anything to keep would raise the question of “But why couldn’t this be saved instead?” for all that gets sacrificed. I’m sure there’s at least one fan of The Force Unleashed who’s bitter they canned that but kept The Clone Wars around; surely there’s only so much poison you can let linger in Star Wars‘ veins.

So presented herein is my idea for four pieces of pre-Episode III Star Wars spin-off (and one that’s post-) that could’ve survived the cull and, hopefully, had no impact on the upcoming trilogy. Don’t worry, I’ll explain to you what each thing is in detail for those who’ve not read/played/watched the relevant entries (and if you haven’t played the first one, you should cease what you’re doing this minute and purchase it) in a way that doesn’t come off as too fanboy-ish. Maybe. I can get pretty into this stuff on a level that makes my Batman obsession look well-adjusted.

For those as embedded in canon as me, please don’t take it as an insult if I leave a piece of your favourite EU missing. This is hardly an exhaustive list, and no-one judges you for liking The Star Wars Holiday Special.

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1 – Knights of the Old Republic

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

KotorboxOver a millennium before Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor invade a spaceship looking like a half-eaten donut in The Phantom Menace, you play as a recently-discovered Jedi on the run from the dominance of the Sith Empire. See, in a reverse of the Jedi situation of the Prequel Trilogy, you’re kinda one of the last of an endangered species. You might also have a mysterious past that could redecide the fate of the galaxy, once a guy with half a Darth Vader mask stops chasing you while seeming to find you strangely familiar.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Ask any enduring Star Wars fan what their favourite video game was. If the first answer is Battlefront, the second will be KotOR.

The first Knights set the bar for both Star Wars games and action-RPGs for the newer console generation, starting life on the original Xbox and PC. Even today, though the graphics are dated, both story and gameplay are top-notch. More importantly, the story is excellently told no matter what alignment of the Force you set yourself to; burgeoning Jedi Masters or emerging Sith Lords find equal ground for satisfaction here. Even disregarding that, both the setting and umbrella plot of the ‘verse over a thousand years before The Phantom Menace is awesome and engaging. Part of that stems from a bit of familiarity, but a lot from the fact that we’ve got literally an entire galaxy to play with here.

Also, you can fight Dark Jedi in your underwear. Because Internet.
Also, you can fight Dark Jedi in your underwear. Because Internet.

The timeline of KotOR is verdant, free of any entanglements with protagonists that usually plague other games set within already-defined canon (see the first two Dark Forces games for an idea of what I’m on about). You can go anywhere, make any story you want, and it’s all having consequences only on itself. Nothing’s verboten. It’s a remarkably freeing feeling, knowing you’re playing a story where the ending or inclusion of characters isn’t predefined by a poorly made CGI sequel where Hayden Christensen pretends to emote.

The second game was good, but most tend not to talk about it. Let’s not break from tradition here.

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2 – The Darth Bane trilogy

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

Some time passes following the end of Knight of the Old Republic, during which the Jedi have thrived and the Sith are facing Path-of-destructionsomething of a cultural and military ennui. A young miner on a crapsack planet discovers he has violent tendencies that inadvertently trigger the Force, and thus sets off to join the Sith and get hold of all that passion, anger and other nasty stuff Emperor Palpatine always seems to find a turn-on. Over time, the miner becomes Darth Bane: if the Sith ever had a version of Chuck Norris, he’d be it.

Over the course of three novels, Bane sets about reformatting the Sith into a more cohesive, ordered entity, largely by cutting down their numbers from dozens to just two. Remember that Sith axiom from the prequels referring to there only being two – a master and an apprentice? Were it a royalty-driven trademark, Darth Bane’s estate would make Terry Nation’s look like nothing.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Not only are the Darth Bane books exceedingly well-written, especially by Star Wars standards, but they set up fundamental power dynamics between all the Sith characters throughout the existing six movies. Am I the only one who felt the explanation given in Phantom Menace – or, rather, the lack of one – about why only two black-cloak-wearing badasses are running around foiling the Jedi was kind of non-explanatory? These books go a ways towards redeeming that lacking quality, as well as giving us an interesting story that, for all intents and purposes, is the origin of the Sith as we know them.

darth-bane_00321727
Those eyes will now inhabit your nightmares.

Bane as a character also presents something of a dichotomy. Granted, he’s as evil as a bag of possessed ferrets with the ax-crazy tendencies that exemplify Sith attitudes, but there’s a number of moments – even following his adoption of the Darth moniker – where there’s real sympathy felt for the guy. The best villain protagonists are written in a way that makes me feel for them, even if only in fleeting dalliances, and this is something Bane’s trilogy managed to pull off from time to time.

The distance from all six films makes the Darth Bane books ideal to keep around, unless Episode VII plans to completely rework how the Sith got their groove back.

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3 – Cloak of Deception

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

cloak_of_deceptionA novel set immediately before the events of The Phantom Menace, and manages to redeem a lot of the poor storytelling choices Lucas made in that film. Cloak of Deception is an introduction to Qui-Gon Jinn, a view into the rotten, corrupted core of the Republic, and a great prelude to the events that would prove disappointing at best and disastrous at worst.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Admittedly it’s been a very long time since I read it, and my copy’s probably squeezed inside one of my storage boxes somewhere in the Himalayas, but in general terms James Luceno writes a lot of what should’ve been included in the first prequel here. Qui-Gon suddenly has a bit of depth and semi-consistent charactersation. The Senate’s not just an obtusely corrupt entity. Things have weight and a bit more depth here, or at least more than what was present in The Phantom Menace.

I know a movie should stand on its own in terms of conveying plot and character, and not rely on expanded universe material to give context to a story they should’ve already told. But since Cloak of Deception does quite a bit to redeem some of the dodgier parts of the first prequel film, I’d be quick to keep this fix-fic on hand for the canon guide.

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4 – Outbound Flight

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

Set between Episodes I and II, the Jedi launch an expedition to go colonise other parts of the universe and see what’s out there. 200px-OutboundflightfrontcoverUnfortunately, “what’s out there” turns out to be an alien empire called the Chiss, led by this dude called Thrawn. The expedition also turns out be led by a Jedi who’s not in possession of all the marbles.

Oh dear.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

Keen-eyed readers will no doubt see one glaring thing about Outbound Flight: if nothing else, it’s a prequel to the very excellent Thrawn trilogy that began the post-Return of the Jedi canon all those years ago. Indeed, several of the major players of that trilogy are introduced in Flight‘s pages, which is probably a given when the writer of both is Timothy Zahn (a.k.a. the author most-cited by fans as being the best at the Star Wars EU).

Part of what makes Outbound Flight rock more than a Chilean landslide is its almost complete divorce from every other element of Star Wars canon of the period. Yes, Obi-Wan and a still-

Seriously, doesn't that just look awesome?
Seriously, doesn’t that just look awesome?

neophyte Anakin appear, but are quickly dispatched from the action by Palpatine and allow the story’s cast of characters to develop without the aid of movie protagonists. There’s a distinctly alien feel to the story in comparison to other EU books, and not just coz the Chiss are involved. The actual Outbound Flight ship is alone, with a bunch of new characters who may not all like each other. They’re being led by an unhinged Jedi Master. The safety net of Coruscant and the Republic is very, very far away, with the great yawning maw of the unknown staring them in the face.

As well as having Zahn’s usual flare for character and descriptive writing, Flight is a fantastic premise and story all on its own.

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5 – Allegiance/Choices of One

WHAT THE HELL IS IT?

AllegianceA pair of novels set just after the end of A New Hope, featuring the chronological first appearance of Mara Jade and a bunch of stormtroopers who decide life under Imperial rule ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. The former hunts Luke Skywalker, the latter set off to become the stormtrooper Justice League (no, seriously).

 

 

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT IT?

First of all, if that premise don’t grab you, nothing will.

Join the Empire, indeed.
Join the Empire, indeed.

The stormtroopers calling themselves the Hand of Judgment are awesome, well-rounded and distinct. The idea of them taking vigilante justice into their own hands and kicking Imperial ass is awesome. Not much more I can say on that, except that it mildly comes across as a “screw-you” to George Lucas’s Clones ideas.

Mara Jade, on the other Hand (a pun for fellow Star Wars nerds), is too good not to have somewhere in the upcoming movies. I don’tchoicesofone care that she’s technically no longer canon anymore. She was awesome right up until Legacy of the Force dropped a bridge on her, and I want her back. Even if she’s not Luke Skywalker’s wife, she’s a damn good character in her own right. Who needs a character like Princess Leia when you’ve got a strong feminist with red hair and a purple lightsaber who’ll slice you for crossing her?

On the less subjective side, both books – and Allegiance especially – do a lot to fill in some gaps between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. We see how Vader learns about Luke, how Luke learns about the Force, and how Han continues to be a lovable jerk. So that’s always nice.

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BONUS – Kyle Katarn

WHO THE HELL IS HE?

If Star Wars ever had an equivalent of Chuck Norris, Vin Diesel and a grizzly bear, it was Kyle Katarn.

223505-119461-kyle-katarn
Awww yeah.

Former Imperial agent turned freelancer turned Jedi, Kyle debuted in a game called Dark Forces back in the days when 3D gameplay looked more like paddle-pop puppets shooting cellophane at you. He moved through several games after that, primarily the awesome Jedi Knight series, and made a few appearances in latter-day EU books like The Unifying Force and Fury.

Let it not be understated that Kyle is a badass. He’s killed more Dark Jedi than most main characters across all six films, carries a lightsaber and pistol, owns a kickass starship, and is able to be morally grey (at times channeling Dirty Harry) without succumbing to the Dark Side (unless you pick that ending, in which case, man is he evil).

Rated M for Manly.
Rated M for Manly.

WHY SHOULD WE HAVE KEPT HIM?

Kyle_KatarnI want to make it clear we should’ve kept Kyle, not necessarily the stories he was part of. Yes, Dark Forces and the Jedi Knight games were awesome, but by the time of the latter’s third instalment Jedi Academy Kyle was experiencing a little badass decay. Plus, does anyone really want to relive that battle with a ghost in a space pyramid?

Book-wise, Kyle was little more than a footnote except for a story called Fury, where he had a substantial appearance that almost killed him off forever. So, y’know, best forgotten.

The character’s dynamic, three-dimensional and fleshed out amongst most of the Star Wars EU’s cardboard cutout Jedi. True, that doesn’t come across so well in the books as it does in the games, but those who’ve experienced the latter can apply it to the former. The truth is Kyle is one of the best characters Star Wars ever produced, and while many may disagree with me since he is, as compared above, a bit of a Chuck Norris too-much-badass figure, I think he’s fantastic. Hell, give us a trilogy of films just focusing on him and it’d be gravy.

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As I said at the top, this is hardly an exhaustive list. I’m sure there’s plenty more that could be added, and I’m not so socially-deprived that I’ve experienced every single piece of story the Star Wars canon had to offer. Well, I mean, I am socially-deprived, but not that socially-deprived.

I look forward to seeing what J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and everyone else has to offer with Episode VII, but it’s always good to remember what came before. If it was something bad, just have a drink afterwards to forget it again.

Dr. Enragelove (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Glee)

I loved Glee. Its first season kicked ass, the novelty was bright and shiny, the characters were awesome and the plot was actually engaging. Then the second and third season happened, and it slowly went on a downward spiral for me. The gloss came off, the characters were wooden and the plots…weren’t worth mentioning.

Then comes Season 4, with half the cast MIA and the other half split between staying at William McKinley High School or jetting off to New York to some post-school-Glee thingy. I dunno, the premise alone made me switch off. It didn’t sound like a show that could survive for very long with such a ridiculous change in status quo.

While I’ve not been watching religiously since the middle of Season 3, I have kept relatively up to date on Wikipedia out of curiosity to see if it actually goes back to the glory days again (so far, no luck). I was intrigued by the description of a recent episode named Shooting Star that purported to be “harrowing” and one of the most dramatic hours in the history of American television. Spoilers were released prior to the episode’s transmission, informing just what kind of harrowing issue the Glee club would be facing next. I won’t go much further than that, but the spoilers were enough to make me want to watch this episode – not out of joy at the series finally returning to its sane roots without appealing to the lowest of the cultural demographics through cheesy songs and OC-levels of relationship drama, but because the premise for the episode alone was enough to make me filled with rage.

So for those who haven’t seen it, don’t worry because:

1. You’re not missing anything.

2. You don’t need your blood pressure raised, too.

3. I’ll paint a portrait of the episode as vividly as I can for you, so you can draw your own conclusions. If you’re still keen to see it after this, may God be with you.

For those of you not keen on Glee and its stupid plots, trust me when I say you’ll want to keep reading.

So the episode starts with some chaff about who New Directions will be facing at Regionals. After some un-punny names of rival glee clubs, resident airhead Britney suddenly informs everyone that a meteor (named after her obese cat) is coming to kill them all in a few days. Glee club mentor Mr Schuester then sets the class the task of telling those they love how much they mean to them in these last days before Lima, Ohio becomes the set of Deep Impact 2: The Deepening.

To be honest, I know who most of the new characters are through Wikipedia trawls, but seeing them on screen for the first time I’ve gotta say they’re really interchangeable (except for the hot brunette – not that she can act, though). So to start the week’s assessment we have Ryder, a young Bieber-wannabe who’s apparently been texting with a mystery girl named “Katie” for the past few episodes. He thinks he’s found who she really is after being sent a picture of her (a blonde with no personality but who somehow watches the news occasionally) and after an embarrassing rendition of Elton John’s “Your Song” he finds out it’s not actually her. She says he’s been Manti Te’o’d by somebody who’s stolen her picture and is screwing with him. Heartbroken, Ryder accuses his friends of being the culprits behind the Te’o’ing, but they swear they’re innocent.

While it may resemble the figurative tip of the iceberg for the grievances I have with this episode, I’ve gotta say that using Manti Te’o as a plot twist for the show seems incredibly poor (and also a couple months too late). If they’re seriously saying there’s a dude messing with Ryder while appropriating pictures from other women, is there seriously not another plot device they can use instead? I mean, hasn’t the fake-man-as-a-woman-on-the-internet thing been done to death? Isn’t that what all those creepy Swedes use for their eHarmony profiles?

Anyway, the next relationship that bears scrutiny here is between Sam and Britney, two blondes with roughly the same IQ and grooming regimens. Apparently Sam’s with Britney but hasn’t really told her how he feels, while she’s more interested in connecting with her cat (insert lesbian pussy joke here). Believe me when I say this plotline doesn’t actually go anywhere, so let’s pay it no more mind.

What is important about Britney in particular is a discussion she has with Becky, the young cheerleader suffering from Down’s Syndrome. Becky’s worried that, with Britney’s impending graduation, she’ll have to go out into the big bad world with nobody to stick with her. She begs Britney to intentionally not graduate so they can stay at school together forever. Britney gently tells her they both need to graduate, and that she’ll always be there for Becky. Remember this conversation, I’ll come back to it later.

The last story before we get to the rancid, rotting meat of the episode is a little relationship drama between Mr Schuester and football coach Beiste, the latter of whom has decided she wants to upgrade their friendship status with a Lady and the Tramp-inspired spaghetti dinner (in the locker room, of all places. Who knew high school was such a romantic location?). Now while the rest of this episode is either boring or infuriating, the scenes between actors Matthew Morrison (Schue) and Dot-Marie Jones (Beiste) are actually decent. I’ve always liked their friend chemistry, and it’s clear the actors are good friends outside of the show. So I won’t lambast their performance or plotline here, though I will return to it with a vengeance at the end of this piece.

Then comes the “emotional heart” of the episode – after telling Beiste he doesn’t feel the same way about her, Schuester brings her to a reconciliatory glee club rehearsal once it’s discovered Britney’s meteor is a dud. Just after Beiste gets into the room, gunshots ring out in the hallway.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen – this week’s Glee is proudly brought to you by the most flagrantly disgusting of plot twists. A goddamn school shooting.

Schuester and Beiste lock the room down fast and get all the kids into hiding places that would seriously not work if a shooter came into the room, like leaning against a wall or hiding in a corner near some chairs without concealment. They barricade one of the two doors into the choir room with a piano (alright, I’ll roll with that) and leave the other door merely locked (because clearly school shooters will be impeded by a few inches of flimsily-secured wood when gunning for teenagers). The kids all start getting the shit scared out of them, and we see that a couple of them weren’t in the room when it got locked down – among them, Sam’s paramour Britney, who’s holed up in the bathroom.

One more point I’m reluctantly willing to give the writers on this one is that they avoided a potentially stupid plot development in amongst the dross they’ve already got; Sam decides to make a break for it to go save Britney (repeatedly), but is thankfully stopped by Schuester and Beiste and told to sit the hell down. For a moment I was worried we’d have a “Sam, don’t be a hero” moment with a bloodied corpse at the end, but thankfully we got something far more vehemently infuriating. But we’ll get there.

What follows is a roughly ten-minute chunk where the kids start phone-videoing goodbye messages to parents and loved ones, while SWAT bust in to give the all-clear. During this, Schuester gets into the bathroom to save Britney and two other random kids hidden in there, and not one minute after they get back inside the choir room we hear SWAT say the building’s clear. So, crisis averted, right?

Sorry, allow me a moment to prepare for the final twist by imbibing this rather large scotch – and keep in mind, at time of writing, it’s 11am. Yep, it’s that bad.

It transpires that Sue Sylvester, cheerleading coach who has until now been absent in the episode, claims responsibility for the gunshots – she brought out her gun (distastefully nicknamed Uma Thurman, just to pour some salt in the wound) for a safety check, then accidentally fired it. Under school regulations the Principal has no choice but to fire her, so Sue packs her bags and ships out after a rather ham-handed rant regarding personal safety, slippage in mental health standards and Obama trying to get back people’s guns. Bad enough, but we’re not done yet.

Remember that conversation Britney and Becky had earlier? Well, it turns out that afterwards Becky – the poor, lonely, unlucky Down’s Syndrome sufferer – decided she didn’t feel safe having to go out into the world on her own, so she stole her father’s gun and brought it to school. When she shows Sue the next day it accidentally goes off, setting off the chain of events making everyone believe there’s a shooter in the school. So Sue’s taken the fall for Becky, and gotten fired as a result.

And if that weren’t enough to make you rend your clothes in fury, you know what happens afterwards? The students, more or less, go back to their normal routine. There’s still a bit of discussion and tears about the incident, but the last ten minutes deal with Sam buying Britney a new cat and declaring he loves her, Ryder trying once more to find out who “Katie” is, and Schuester setting Beiste up with an online dating profile. Yup, Schuester is apparently so unfazed by the event that he sets up Beiste on a date like nothing at all happened. It seems they’re all too willing to sweep this little hiccup under the rug, and get back to kicking ass at AutoTuning.

So, let me boil it down for you, ladies and gentlemen – the episode makes an absolute mockery of the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, people with Down’s Syndrome are mentally unbalanced and apparently likely to bring guns to school, and at the end of the day the power of song and friendship is enough to make you forget you were in the middle of one of the most potentially-terrifying events a person can ever experience.

This…is disgusting. Truly and utterly disgusting. Let’s put aside for a moment the “too soon” angles of argument in relation to the Sandy Hook parallels, and instead have a look at the concept behind this episode. A school shooting. A school shooting. In an otherwise comedic and angsty series, this is as awkward a tonal shift as you can achieve without sticking a torture scene from 24 into the middle of Sesame Street. While I’ve not experienced a school shooting myself, and my heart goes out to all the parents and relatives of those who’ve lost loved ones in those tragic events, I’m fairly certain that, even if you yourself don’t get shot at, you don’t go back to normal straight away. It leaves a mark, a scar, a permanent impact. Your school life, meant to be safe and no more dangerous than the odd toilet facial or stolen lunch money, has forever been marred by the knowledge that a gun, one of the most swift and  deadly killing implements known to man, has gone off in proximity to you. Your life has been directly threatened.

You don’t come back from that five minutes later.

I feel like the show is subconsciously saying that it’s relatively easy getting over a school shooting, and granted, nobody was actually physically injured, but given how distraught and terrified every character was during the scenes that took place just from the mere thought of being harmed, I would be very surprised if most, if not all, didn’t seek counselling afterwards.

Furthermore, let’s look at the Down’s aspect – given how many school shooters have been given exposure as having mental deficiencies or imbalances, at least by media standards, the fact they used the one prominent character in this series with Down’s Syndrome (who has been lovely, heartwarming and one of my favourite characters thus far) as the shooter makes me sick. People with Down’s have enough of a hard time in society as it is without Glee coming in and basically saying “If you make them fearful enough, they’ll protect themselves with guns!” I mean, come on. Seriously. In an age where gun laws and the rights to self-defence are being constantly called into question and gone over from both sides of the argument, Glee comes out with this stupid, fetid, ridiculous and offensive twist?

I feel such heartache for the parents and victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, and I feel doubly sorry for any of them who had the misfortune to watch this trashy, poorly written and utterly hateful piece of televisual garbage that makes a mockery this event. Glee has managed to take a horrific, gut-wrenching tragedy and turn it into this episode of absolutely feckless shit.

I’ll see next week’s episode in case there’s any form of fallout from this one, but I doubt it. If the ending was any indication they’re quite keen to just put this event aside and move on. I know nobody was injured in this story, but tell me, Glee – do you think the Sandy Hook parents just moved on? Do you think they moved on at Virginia Tech, or Columbine, or Chardon? Do you think they were able to just put it past them and go on with life?

A school shooting is not something to be taken lightly, not something to be mocked, not something to be abused for the sake of an ephemeral and pointless storyline, and not something you should be proud of for having in your series. The writers, the showrunners, and every online review who wants to go ahead and call this gripping, powerful or an emotional rollercoaster of an episode should be ashamed. This is not what television, artistic endeavour or humanity in general should aspire to create.

If this is what television thinks it needs to do to have an impact anymore, then God help us going forward.