Doctor Who: “Smile” has too many ideas and not much to say about any of them

True to Doctor Who tradition, the second episode of season ten sees the Doctor and Bill Potts traveling far into the future. Usually these far future trips are less plot-focused and more character-driven, often with a commentary about the human condition, and “Smile” is definitely in all of those neighborhoods. If last week’s “The Pilot” was about introducing the show to new viewers and putting the new companion through some of her madcap adventuring paces, “Smile” (like “The End of the World,” “New Earth,” “The Beast Below” and others) is about testing the companion’s limits and challenging her (and the viewer’s) expectations about the future. Unfortunately, not every episode of this type can be a classic like “The End of the World” or “The Beast Below,” and “Smile” isn’t great, mostly because it gets a bit bogged down in being a sort of vaguely anti-technology polemic against emoji.

**Spoilers below.**

Our first glimpse of Gliese 581d is of vast wheat fields and blue skies over a beautiful, albeit stark, white building. It’s not a particularly unique setting for a Doctor Who episode, and it’s the sort of bland sci-fi futurist imagery that just screams dystopia. It’s fine. It is a kind of dystopia, as we’re soon to find out, inhabited by emoji-faced robots, swarms of murderous microbots (Vardies) and a ship full of refugees from a future Earth crisis. The Doctor and Bill arrive right after the robots have murdered the first wave of human colonists who were responsible for preparing the planet to receive the rest of the refugees, who have been kept in stasis. After making a macabre discovery in a greenhouse, the Doctor and Bill have to piece together what happened to the original people before a bunch of very confused robots kill them all.

The emotional core of the episode is Bill coming to terms with a future for humanity that isn’t what she expected or hoped, and Pearl Mackie continues to play Bill with such expressive sensitivity (balanced by heaps of cleverness) that this emotional journey mostly works. There’s some incoherence in the middle as Bill throws herself into uncovering the truth about what’s happened on Gliese, but for the most part it’s easy enough to understand Bill’s feelings. Her sadness and distress as she learns about the future history of Earth are relatable enough, though the episode would have benefited from spending a little more time on Bill’s feelings, just in general. Mackie is such a beautifully emotive actor that it’s a shame to force her to cycle so quickly between feelings-having and doing cleverly competent companion stuff without allowing the feelings to breathe.

One could make the argument that this was intentional and thematically consistent in this episode, what with the enforced cheerfulness that Bill is forced to perform for the emoji-bots, but it’s an episode that is, frankly, full of mixed messaging and missed opportunities for thematic resonance. It touches on several theoretically interesting ideas—the alleged shallowness and limitations of emoji-based communications, the potential for miscommunication when using emoji, and the gendered (and age-dependent) enforcement of public happiness—without managing to have much to say about any of them. As uncomfortable as it is to see an older white man constantly reminding a young woman to “Smile!” the episode has remarkably little to say about the phenomenon, which seems like a huge missed opportunity, and I would love to see this idea tackled by a capable female writer with some awareness of the discourse surrounding this particular patriarchal expectation for women and children.

When it comes to being critical of emoji, the episode is a little more capable, but it relies on a straw man conception of what emoji are, how they are used and what they might be used for in the future. Rather than making any kind of insightful point, there’s an underlying tone of a middle-aged man grumbling about kids these days. Similarly, the warning tone the episode takes towards human reliance on automated technology in general suggests a, frankly, boring Neo-Luddite alarmism about the dangers of artificial intelligence and the hubris of human ingenuity. This messaging becomes even more muddled when combined with the seemingly agrarian aspirations of the Gliese settlers, which is strongly at odds with the warlike, violent humans that are awoken by the end of the episode, whose first instincts are to defend themselves with force against the confused robots that killed their friends.

There are a whole slew of popular sci-fi concepts and tropes in play here, but “Smile” would have been a stronger episode if it decided to focus on one or two and commit to exploring a strong central thesis. It’s not a terrible episode, and Bill continues to charm (she’s the most promising new companion since Donna, in my opinion), but it’s definitely a case of an episode trying to do both too much and too little, with a lazy premise and overall lack of cogent vision.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

Doctor Who: “The Pilot” is a reasonably well-done soft reboot for the beginning of the end of the Moffat Era

Last time I reviewed Doctor Who it was the most recent Christmas Special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio,” which was enjoyable garbage. I haven’t been particularly excited about the show in several years, to be honest. Like many people, especially feminist people, I’ve found the Moffat era, well, trying, to say the least, so I was pretty certain that the best news about series 10 of the rebooted show was that it was Steven Moffat’s last one as showrunner. Then the announcement came that Pearl Mackie would be playing new companion Bill Potts, and she seemed delightful. Then a couple weeks ago the news broke that Bill was to be the show’s first gay companion, which brought a new round of both delight and apprehension. It turns out, however, that the first episode of the new series, “The Pilot” is neither as wonderful as long-time fans might have hoped nor as disastrous as pessimists might have thought a Moffat-penned episode introducing a black gay woman would be.

Peter Capaldi is back as the Doctor, and this time he’s been lecturing, for decades apparently, at St. Luke’s University in Bristol. Bill Potts works at the university canteen, but she also attends as many of the Doctor’s lectures as she can get to. The episode opens with the Doctor wanting to know why. He likes Bill—partly because, he says, when she doesn’t understand something, she smiles, which is a nice bit of characterization that, if it doesn’t set Bill apart from previous companions, is a great memorable line of description that quickly gives us an idea of who Bill is. At any rate, it’s a good sight better than Bill’s rambling story about her crush on a girl who comes into the canteen every day, which is cute—and it’s nice to see Bill’s gayness treated so casually—but also somewhat silly. When the Doctor offers to tutor Bill privately—on “everything”—Bill naturally jumps at the chance, although her emotionally distant foster mother is less than supportive.

The episode’s rather slight plot starts and ends with Bill’s newest crush on Heather, a quietly misanthropic girl with a distinctive star-shaped defect in one eye. Heather shows bill a strange puddle that is surrounded by a circle of scorch marks, and when Heather gets swallowed up by the puddle and then starts chasing Bill around, the Doctor gets involved. Amidst a great deal of the kind of 101 level exposition—TARDIS, cloaking device, chameleon circuit, bigger on the inside, Daleks, etc.—that will be redundant and boring to longtime fans but invaluable to first time watchers, we find out that the puddle is actually a sort of sentient space oil left by a now-departed spaceship. If that seems like pure, nonsensical speculation, just wait until the scene where the Doctor and Bill are talking it through and figuring out how it works by using basically the same kind of deductive reasoning used by Sir Bedivere and a horde of angry peasants to identify a witch in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This would be funnier if it was obvious that it was an intentional reference, but it’s, frankly, just the kind of low-substance mystical gobbledygook that has characterized many Who episodes during Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner.

It’s fine, though. Bill’s not-quite-fledgling romance with Heather is sweet, and Pearl Mackie plays Bill with a lovely sensitivity and vulnerability that makes it easy to believe that Bill could be deeply affected by what has been just a fleeting connection with Heather. The scenes of Bill being chased by the drowned Heather from the puddle are suitably frightening in the ordinary PG way one expects of the show, and there are even one or two almost-jump-scares that heighten the sense of fear and urgency. The chase gets Bill onto the Tardis and offers as good an excuse as any for her to get a bit of a tour and for the Doctor to put the Tardis through her paces, again presumably for the benefit of new-to-the-show viewers. It’s a good way for everyone to get the lay of the land after so much time without regular episodes of the show, and it also takes time to introduce the beginning of what seems likely to be the season-long arc: What is the Doctor hiding at St. Luke’s, and why?

It’s not quite as whiz-bang as some other Moffat-penned episodes, but “The Pilot” is quick and snappy, filled with short scenes, fast talking, and lots of running around. It at times feels as if it’s going through a checklist of “Things Steven Moffat Wants Us to Know About the Doctor and His New Companion,” but it’s mostly coherent, albeit sometimes absurd. Increasingly in recent years, I find that the less I think about Doctor Who the more I enjoy it, and that is almost certainly still going to be the case in this new season. “The Pilot” wasn’t as bad as I worried it might be; it’s just exactly what the show has been since Steven Moffat took it over. I’m optimistic about Bill, who I’m already half in love with, but only time will tell if she’s going to get the well-written adventures she deserves. As a soft reboot of a well-loved show, “The Pilot” is a mostly successful, with enough information and thrills to hook new viewers, a promising new companion, and plenty of references to the show’s past to please old-timers.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • It’s good to see another companion with an actual backstory and identity outside of “companion to the Doctor.” Bill already has more depth than Clara was ever given, though it remains to be seen whether Bill will be more consistently written than the Ponds.
  • I like Matt Lucas, but Nardole was utterly forgettable in this episode. It seemed as if they didn’t know quite what to do with him this week, which is too bad.
  • Why didn’t Bill ask the Doctor about his appearance in one of the photos of her mother?

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: April 16, 2017

Happy Passover and happy Easter for those who are celebrating this week! I’m almost too bloated on deviled eggs and mini-cheesecakes and ham to write tonight, but I’m working through it.

It’s been an uneventful and moderately productive week for me, both in writing and otherwise. This coming week, my goal is to finish several book reviews, as I’ve finished a few things lately that I really enjoyed. After about a week-long reading slump (mostly due to getting stuck on a title I didn’t like but that had a concept too good for me to quit it right away), I just started an ARC of Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages (out May 2 from Tachyon Publications). I’ve only read the first story, but I’m already really excited about the rest. I’ll probably be reading that in tandem with the new John Joseph Adams edited anthology, Cosmic Powers, which has my favorite table of contents of the year so far and is out this Tuesday, April 18, from Saga Press.

The finalists for this year’s Eugie Award have been announced.

The new and improved World Fantasy Award.

The World Fantasy Awards Administration unveiled the new award statuette that will be replacing the bust of old, gross racist H.P. Lovecraft. It’s gorgeous, and finally addressing the Lovecraft problem built up a lot of good will. Which was then swiftly squandered when everyone learned that they’re keeping Lovecraft on as a pin for all award nominees. Apparently there’s a bunch of pins left over from previous years and they want to use them til they’re gone, which is thrifty, but still ill-advised considering how much people don’t want to look at some nasty old racist’s ugly face anymore. Still, that new stature really is lovely.

Word is that Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels are being adapted for film and television, and I’m full of mixed feelings about it. I read and loved the shit out of those books when I was in middle school, but I realize as an adult that Xanth is best enjoyed when you’re just old enough to appreciate puns but still young enough that Piers Anthony’s creepily unfortunate gender politics is all going to go right over your head.

It turns out that I’m still not okay about Carrie Fisher. This tribute video made me cry. A lot.

I felt slightly better on reading the announcement of a new Star Wars anthology. Coming October 3, From a Certain Point of View will consist of 40 new stories told from the perspectives of background characters from A New Hope. While there’s no table of contents yet, there’s already an impressive list of authors donating work to the collection, from which all proceeds will go to benefit First Book, a non-profit that provides books and other learning materials to educators and organizations helping children in need.

Fantasy Book Cafe’s Women in SFF Month continued this week:

Dianna Gunn’s novella, Keeper of the Dawn, is out on April 18 from Book Smugglers Publishing, and this week she talked about her inspirations and influences for the book.

Aliette de Bodard wrote a guest post over at Skiffy and Fanty about writing vibrant, unexpected characters.

Margaret Atwood was profiled in The New Yorker.

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together is still pumping out their Dystopian Visions series, which I am still loving. It’s a great mix of posts on stuff I know well and things I’m less familiar with. This week, they covered:

At Strange Horizons, Erin Horakova wrote an amazing essay on what she calls “Kirk Drift”–the disconnect between the popular imagination of James T. Kirk and the actual, textual reality of the character.

Aidan Moher kicked off a new blog series at Tor.com, The Art of SFF, with a post about Richard Anderson.

My favorite free-online short fiction of the week was Kate Lechler’s “The Hulder’s Husband Says Don’t” over at Fireside.

I loved Ana Lily Amanpour’s first feature-length film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (on Netflix if you haven’t seen it!), so I’m pretty stoked about her new movie, The Bad Batch, which is being described as “a horror-romance (with cannibals).”

I’m fairly certain that Atomic Blonde is going to be a problematic mess, but I am really excited for it. There’s a new trailer, and it looks AMAZING:

 

 

The Expanse: “The Monster and the Rocket” is a brilliantly multilayered penultimate episode of the season

Every time I’ve seen the best The Expanse has to offer this show manages to reach a new height of exciting and thought-provoking entertainment, and “The Monster and the Rocket” is its newest leveling-up episode. It’s a tightly plotted and paced episode that hits every story beat and emotional note exactly right; it’s got layers of meaning and metaphor that make it ripe for critical analysis; and it ends each of its storylines in such a way as to build up maximum anticipation for next week’s season finale.

**Spoilers below.**

The episode opens with Sadavir Errinwright shaving and replaying Avasarala’s recent advice to him in his head. I started humming “Needle in the Hay” about the time he nicked himself and stared pensively into the mirror, but then it cuts to him walking his teenage son, Jefferson, to school. We learn that the elder Errinwright has been having nightmares, and his son is as sweetly concerned as any teenager ever is when their parent is acting strange. Sadavir tries to impart what sounds like some final advice to the boy, which freaks him out enough that Sadavir tries to calm him down with a particularly unconvincing “Everything is gonna be okay.” If there’s any part of this episode that I didn’t love, it’s this opening sequence, partly because the shaving scene feels a little on the nose and partly because, while I appreciate the attempt to humanize Sadavir Errinwright and make sure the audience knows that he’s got a whole life that he’s pissed away on his scheming with Mao, I have a hard time caring too much about this teen son at this point unless he’s going to be more than a throwaway character.

Before the Eros hearings begin, Errinwright meets with Avasarala, who feels bad for him but is still unwilling to sacrifice her own career and credibility to save him from the consequences of his own actions. Chrisjen tries to reassure Errinwright about the outcome of the hearing, but he’s not encouraged and in fact seems very agitated as he forces Chrisjen to hold onto a medal that he hopes she’ll give to his son if things go poorly. She also tells him about her upcoming meeting with Jules-Pierre Mao, and Errinwright insists to her that Mars would use the protomolecule weapon to destroy Earth. Avasarala doesn’t believe that, but Errinwright insists that she must convince Mao of it as well. She doesn’t get to do that, however, because Errinwright’s plan to get himself out of any consequences for his horrible actions is about to be set in motion.

If it wasn’t obvious enough after the opening scene and the short conversation with Avasarala before the hearing that we’re mean to think Errinwright is on the road to suicide, there’s a scene for that. He writes what appears to be a suicide note to his ex-wife, Jodie, and then plays with a small green vial that looks like poison. In hindsight, it’s almost a little too heavy-handed a red herring (not quite, though—I was momentarily fooled), and the next time we see Errinwright he’s coming back into his office after visiting the opera with the Martian defense minister, Pyotr Korshunov. Errinwright pours from a 107-year-old bottle of scotch and starts a sort of “let’s be real” talk about the protomolecule. Soon enough, however, Korshunov collapses, having a heart attack from the poison Errinwright has slipped into the scotch. The poison is one that specifically targets only Martians and was banned under international law, but Errinwright points out that “if you give a monkey a stick, eventually he’ll beat another monkey to death with it.”

Errinwright isn’t willing to let Mars have sole access to the protomolecule—even though Korshunov says they would use it to accelerate their terraforming project—and he’s willing to kill to make his point. At the same time, we learn, Errinwright has the MCRN ship Karakum destroyed before it can pick up the protomolecule on Ganymede. The last step of Errinwright’s plan, it turns out, is to call up Avasarala and Mao, now in orbit on Mao’s ship, and let them know how things are going to be. Mao is instructed to kill Avasara and come back to Earth so he and Errinwright can continue their partnership. As soon as the message ends, guns are drawn and Mao is out the door, leaving Avasarala, Bobbie, and Cotyar in the ship’s lounge with one tiny gun against several of Mao’s security force. And that’s where this story ends for the week! They’ve changed things just enough from the book that I’m not quite sure how it’s going to go down in the season finale, but however it does, Avasarala is going to be furious, and I suspect it’s going to be amazing.

It’s somewhat weird, this late in the show, to shift the primary point of view of a storyline like this, and I wasn’t sold on the change from Avasarala and Bobbie’s POVs to having this part of the story told more from Errinwright’s perspective, but it works well on several levels. Having read some of the books, even knowing that the show has deviated somewhat from how these events occurred in Caliban’s War, it’s interesting to get a POV that we didn’t get in the novel. The POV change is also a great way of revealing the rather vast difference between the way that Chrisjen perceives and understands Errinwright and the way that he really is, which is much more underhandedly ambitious than she has given him credit for before now. Both Avasarala and Mao are caught flatfooted by Errinwright’s actions this week, and so, to a certain extent, is the audience, who has been primed all season long to think the same way Chrisjen does about Errinwright and to see him as a pawn of Mao’s rather than a competent and cutthroat schemer in his own right. Smart writing combined with capable performances on the part of all involved have paid off wonderfully in the form of a genuine surprise and a cliffhanger ending that feels truly consequential.

On Ganymede, the Roci crew is still split up. Holden, Prax and Alex are hunting for the Caliban hybrid in the wreckage of the domes while Naomi and Amos go to see what they can do to help Melissa get the Weeping Somnambulist airworthy so they can help evacuate the collapsing station.

When they arrive at where the Weeping Somnambulist is docked, Naomi and Alex find near chaos and no welcome, as Melissa is still angry about them getting her husband murdered. However, Naomi insists on helping to repair the ship, and Melissa eventually lets her since it needs doing. While repairs are going on, conditions on the station continue to deteriorate, more people keep showing up outside, and things start to get increasingly chaotic as people start to get frightened. Things get worse when Melissa tells Naomi that they only have enough air on board to take fifty-two people out of the well over a hundred who are waiting outside. Melissa closes the door to the ship when people start to get violent, and she and Amos don’t think it’s safe to open in again. Naomi, however, can’t bring herself to leave everyone, and she insists on going out to talk to the crowd, organizing them into groups and taking children first, then young women and men until they can’t take any more. It’s a truly heart-wrenching scene and a superbly executed redemptive moment for Naomi, who desperately wanted to help at least some of Ganymede’s people.

Meanwhile, the hunt for the hybrid isn’t going super well, as it’s hiding and darting about so that Holden can’t see where to shoot it, which has him very much on edge. Holden’s state of mind isn’t helped by Prax being against killing the creature altogether—since they don’t actually know what it is and it might be someone’s young child and the victim of an evil science experiment—and Alex being concerned about damaging the ship and/or getting caught by the MCRN and shot. In fact, Holden seems to have finally gone full Ahab on us, and he’s being absolutely monstrous to the other two men about everything. It’s only when the Karakum is destroyed and it becomes obvious that ships leaving the station—like the Somnambulist—are in need of assistance that Alex puts his foot down and refuses to keep hunting the hybrid. He takes the Rocinante to help, intercepting a torpedo launched at the relief ship, and by threatening (bluffing?) to take out the rest of the Martian fleet they’re able to stop the MCRN from firing any more.

The episode ends with the Rocinante escorting the Weeping Somnambulist to safety, but they don’t know yet that the Roci has a stowaway. The hybrid has torn into the side of the ship, so that’s gonna be a fun discovery next week. Personally, I almost didn’t notice it this week, watching the episode for the first time on a computer monitor; even on a 21” wide screen, it’s small, and the episode was exciting enough that, if you don’t know to look for it, you might be too busy breathing a big sigh of relief for the Somnambulist to catch it. That said, on a 50”-ish television screen, the hybrid tearing into the side of the Roci is pretty clearly visible, so anyone watching the show more traditionally should have no problem seeing it.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Errinwright’s advice to his son—“listen to your heart”—is reminiscent of Polonius’s advice to Laertes in Hamlet, and the stage metaphor is continued explicitly in Errinwright’s conversation with Pyotr Korshunov later on. I’m not really equipped to analyze that much more deeply, but I’m certain the Shakespearean allusion is intentional and I will read the shit out of anything that someone else wants to write about it.
  • Speaking of “Korshunov,” I choose to believe that’s not a reference to Air Force One.
  • Bobbie and Cotyar bickering is my new favorite thing. I’m definitely going to be looking for fanfic while I wait for season three of the show to come out.
  • Avasarala is a terrible traveler.
  • Chrisjen’s short speech about “Earth’s real gravity” is excellent.
  • “You even arrested my cousin! He’s a monk.”
  • “You people are shit magnets.” #ACCURATE
  • “Please, put those down and step away from the panel right now.” Delivered with exactly the right air of exasperated outrage at seeing something done wrong.
  • “You’re not finished yet.” Not finished crying, that is.
  • “Give me an open channel.”
    “Oh, man…”

iZombie: “Zombie Knows Best” would be better if it wasn’t a showcase for Whiteness

iZombie is a show that has always struggled with issues of race (and even, at times, gender), and “Zombie Knows Best” functions as a showpiece of several of the show’s general race/gender problems. I suspect it’s a writers’ room (more like Whiteness room) problem, to be honest. Still, it manages (though not impressively) to be a solid episode with some enjoyable moments. Clive gets some much needed, albeit extremely belated, backstory; we learn some more about what’s going on at Fillmore Graves; there’s a decent-but-not-stand-out case of the week; and for all that there are significant flaws in the execution of it, Liv and Major on father-daughter brains still delivers some humor if you don’t think too hard about any of it. I’d like to see the show do better, but this episode could have been worse.

**Spoilers below.**

The episode opens with Clive being questioned by Detective Cavanaugh, which seems to have taken place the night before the events that make up this week’s case. Cavanaugh wants to know more about Clive’s relationship with Wally. Clive at first tries to downplay the relationship, but he’s forced to spill when Cavanaugh pulls out a photo of Clive with Wally and his mother, Anna (Caitlin Stryker), in which they all look very cozy. Clive’s answer to Cavanaugh and his memories of Wally and Anna are metered out over the course of the episode, and we learn that Anna’s husband was abusive, which landed him in prison. While the husband was in prison, Clive grew close to Anna and Wally, almost becoming romantically involved with Anna before he went undercover and Anna and Wally moved in with Anna’s brother, Caleb, and somehow got turned into zombies, at which point Anna sent Clive a letter telling him they didn’t want to keep in touch.

This is the most we’ve learned about Clive since the show started, and it’s by far the most real Clive has ever felt. It’s just unfortunate that Anna and Wally had to be fridged in order for Clive to develop as a character, especially when we see how wonderful Anna is and especially especially considering how few women of color have been featured on this show in any kind of positive capacity. And listen. I get it. I understand that this is all about Clive’s regrets and doubts and what-might-have-beens. It’s meant to give a previously enigmatic character some more depth and shape, and there’s nothing like a tragedy to make that happen. However, this is the same show that screwed around for months having Clive date that Dale woman last year only to have nothing ever come of it. They could easily have introduced Wally and then Anna as a love interest for Clive, given them basically the same backstory with the abusive husband and zombification and lost contact, and written a story about Clive reconnecting with Anna and coming to terms with her being a zombie as he comes to terms with the whole zombie thing in general. Instead, we get a pretty much textbook fridging leading to what is moving towards revenge quest territory.

Anna deserves better, and the audience deserves better than this kind of lazy, cliché nonsense, no matter how cleverly the story is told in intricately woven together flashbacks.

The case of the week concerns a father and daughter, Stan and Cindy Chen, who are killed in an obviously suspicious hit-and-run. When Cindy’s friend Winslow sent Cindy a photo of Winslow in bed with her step-dad, Cindy showed it to her father, who insisted that they had to tell the authorities, which turns out to be a motive for murder when Winslow’s mom finds out. There are a couple of interesting twists and turns here, and even a nicely done red herring moment—when we see Major’s flashback to Cindy showing her dad the image on her phone and exclaiming “gross,” the context suggests (briefly) that it could be something zombie-related—but the truth is that this whole case just seems like an excuse to have Liv and Major eat these brains for humor reasons.

Literally as soon as we meet Winslow’s mom it’s obvious that she’s the murderer and the case is solved without much more trouble. Much more time is spent on Major and Liv being entertainingly effected by Cindy and Stan’s brains, which is definitely funny, and it helps to lighten things up since Clive’s story line this week is so dark and sad, but it’s a bit of a cheap laugh. Robert Buckley hamming it up stereotypical teenage girl style loses its charm quickly, and dad Liv isn’t much better. The problem with both of these is that they rely on only stereotypes for their characterization this week, and they’re positively archaic stereotypes at that. Teen girl Major could have been based on the teen daughter in any movie from about 1975 to the present, and Liv’s dad brain seems straight out of the 1950s. Neither of them give us any insight whatsoever into who Cindy and Stan were as individuals, though we know that they were killed on the way to an ice skating practice at 4 am and that they surely had complex internal lives that weren’t boring clichés. That Cindy and Stan were Asian American is entirely ignored in favor of playing with the lower-hanging fruit of “jokes” that are more “relatable.” I suppose it’s for the best that they didn’t go for mocking Asian stereotypes, but I don’t think what they did do, just ignoring the individuality of the characters altogether, is much better.

The worst effect of this is that it makes it difficult to become emotionally invested in the murder victims. Instead, the audience is encouraged to identify more with rich white girl Winslow. Even though Winslow isn’t painted as a particularly sympathetic victim, she still gets significantly more screen time than Cindy and Stan Chen together. We never even learn if Cindy has a mother or if Stan has a wife, and we certainly never meet her if she exists. However, we meet Winslow’s mother and step-dad, we see their business, we learn their history and see something of their family dynamic. It’s a lot of information about them and a lot of attention paid to Winslow’s victimization—we even get to see her skeevy step-dad’s booking on screen—but we don’t meet a single other soul who’s even met Cindy or Stan. I doubt this is maliciously intended, and it’s common for the show to focus on suspects and the main cast rather than on its murder victims, who are often simple plot devices, but still. They usually do better than this at giving us an idea of who their murder victims are and why we should care about them, at least for forty or so minutes.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • Clive’s flashback mustache is surprisingly hot.
  • Liv’s “King of the Grill” apron might be my favorite thing about the episode.
  • Ravi’s angst over Peyton is already boring, and it, frankly, makes him seem like kind of an asshole.
  • Speaking of Peyton, she’s absent this week, as is Blaine. They’re missed, but I don’t know when they could have been squeezed into the hour.
  • The Fillmore Graves zombies eat a mash of different brains that keeps them from having the personality shifts and flashbacks that Liv and Major experience.
  • While much of dad Liv fell a little flat for me, “In this house we eat brains and solve murders!” made me laugh.
  • I’m not sure about the creepy IT guy. His role here seems like a new character introduction, but he’s weird and unfunny and bland enough that I can’t even remember his name. He’d definitely be an unnecessary addition to an already large cast.

Into the Badlands: Sunny’s absence lets the show shine some light on other characters in “Palm of the Iron Fox”

After last week’s relatively slow episode and its extremely frustrating ending, “Palm of the Iron Fox” provides quite a lot of payoff, though it’s not without its own frustrations. I’m glad that we finally get to see the Barons’ conclave, but there’s a major plot event that feels somewhat abrupt, especially this early in the season. Veil finally gets a plot that’s just hers, which might be my favorite thing about the episode, but I missed Sunny and Bajie this week, even if their absence works well to give the other plots, especially Veil’s, more space to breathe. As always, the fight scenes are well done, and the showpiece of the episode—the fight at the Barons’ conclave—is worth the wait.

**Spoilers below.**

Rather than just a pre-credits scene, this week there’s a rather long pre-credits sequence at Quinn’s underground compound, where Quinn’s making the final preparations to make his move against the other Barons. Veil, on the other hand, is clearly angling to get him to leave her alone in the compound with baby Henry because she wants to escape. Unfortunately, though Quinn doesn’t seem wise to Veil’s desire to leave, he is also too canny to leave her alone. He informs her that he’ll be leaving Edgar with her to be sure she’s “safe” and then goes to give a gloriously unhinged speech to his men. I know many reviewers like to criticize Marton Csokas’ accent as Quinn because it’s bizarre, but I genuinely love the over-the-top campy flair that Csokas brings to the role and it’s turned up to eleven here in an atmosphere that’s nothing short of cult-like.

Veil’s first escape attempt, once Quinn and the rest of the men leave, is to climb out through the roof of the ventilation room where she takes Henry for his daily dose of sunshine. Unfortunately, climbing up a rope while wearing an infant is harder than she seems to have anticipated and Edgar gets suspicious and comes to check on her before she’s out, putting an end to that plan. Later, Veil decides to drug Edgar and just go out the front door of the compound, but this too proves difficult. The gate to the outdoors is locked, and before Veil can break the lock Edgar wakes up and attacks her. He’s angry at being drugged and furious at what he sees as Veil’s betrayal of Quinn and the men, and he nearly strangles her to death before she’s able to fight him off and eventually kill him. Unluckily, a key that Veil managed to get away from Edgar has broken off in the gate’s lock, and when we see her last she seems to be still trapped underground, but now also traumatized, injured, and with Edgar’s dead body to explain if Quinn and company get back before she figures out another way to get away.

After spending the last couple episodes quietly making it clear that Veil wasn’t staying with Quinn of her own volition, it was nice to see Veil finally make her move to leave, but neither of her plans were fully thought out or explained very well. This ends up leading to some mixed messaging. On the one hand, Veil is explicitly portrayed as patient and methodical, willing to endure indignity and frustration to keep her child and herself safe. We’re also shown that she’s smart and resourceful and able to think quickly to avert disaster. On the other hand, she’s apparently not smart, resourceful or quick-thinking enough to make a success of either of her plans in this episode, and neither of those plans are particularly indicative of patience or of methodical planning. That said, Veil’s story this week ended on a little bit of a cliffhanger, with her collapsed and sobbing after fighting Edgar, so it’s still entirely likely that she’ll come up with some smart, resourceful, quickly-thought-up plan between now and the time Quinn gets home. Things are just uncertain enough that whatever happens next could shift the narrative and clarify the messaging we’re supposed to be getting about this character.

I’m also unsure how I feel about Veil killing Edgar. While, no doubt, even the gentlest person can probably kill in a fight for their life, Veil is the second woman this season (after Lydia) who has killed in self-defense after being characterized clearly as not a killer. Veil, for most of the show so far—and especially this season—has been a Penelope to Sunny’s Odysseus, not a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued (fortunately), but still a largely passive character whose agency in the story has been compellingly subtle up until now. In a show that has the ethics of murder as a major thematic concern, it has felt significant that Veil was so clearly not a killer. Even her refusal to treat Quinn’s tumor and her decision to keep his condition secret from him aren’t particularly murderous actions; it’s likely that Veil is simply without the means to cure the cancer, and it’s obvious how she benefits from using her status as his doctor to manipulate Quinn and ensure at least something akin to safety for herself and her child. At the same time, it also makes sense that Veil would want to escape; her situation with Quinn is tenuous at best. He might discover her ruse, he might go completely insane, he may die and leave her alone with a group of trained killers, at least some of whom still retain some hero worship of Sunny that may put her in a weird situation during any kind of power struggle.

Still, Veil killing Edgar feels out of character and unnecessarily tragic. Edgar seemed kind—though that is shown to be highly conditional—and seems to be one of Veil’s few friends and potential allies in this place. It’s possible that this is what is meant to be the real tragedy here—that a man who seemed so caring could so quickly turn on Veil and try to kill her, but if that was the case it’s muddled by the fact that he only turns on Veil after she poisons him (and does it knowing that he could be killed if Quinn returned to find Veil missing). While this, too, may all become less confused once we find out what Veil does next, it all just amounts to a failure of the fantasy morality of the show. It’s a show in which violence and killing are common—and commonly depicted with artful blood splatter as scores of nameless extras are slaughtered in battles between named antiheroes of various stripes—and life is decidedly cheap. Veil’s killing of Edgar is different, more personal and more ethically acceptable by real world standards, but it’s nonetheless hard to feel the full impact of it when ten minutes later we’re watching a gleefully wet bloodbath.

Finally, Veil’s purity, primarily expressed as nonviolence (even in resistance), and her penchant for healing rather than harming have been so essential to her character and to her dynamic with Sunny that her killing of Edgar feels like a despoiling event, complete with the lingering shot of baby Henry with Edgar’s blood splashed across his little face. There’s a sense here that, whatever happens next, Veil has been tainted by her experiences, and that it touches her baby as well. Considering the degree to which Veil’s resolute purity has always stood in contrast to Sunny’s corruption, it’s surely significant that Veil would find herself damaged just as Sunny has gotten well and truly started on his redemption arc (highlighted last week in his refusal to kill Nathaniel Moon).

The other major plotline of the episode concerns the Barons’ conclave that Ryder called for two weeks ago. This all opens with a scene of the Widow getting dressed for the actual event, which seems a little redundant since she just got to the estate, but okay. Waldo advises her to be fearless in a pep talk that is only just this side of insufferable mansplaining. I’m starting to wonder just how the Widow ever managed to become a Baron in the first place if she is as incompetent at politicking as Waldo treats her like she is. The only new Baron we’re introduced to at any length this week is Baron Chau, the only other woman Baron and a strict traditionalist, probably because she’s the Baron who is the source of all the cogs owned by the others. Chau offers her support to the Widow in exchange for a promise not to shelter any more runaway cogs, which the Widow at first balks at before being convinced by Waldo (natch) to take Chau’s offer. Still, it’s not enough, and when it comes time all five of the other Barons, Chau included, vote to strip the Widow of her title and banish her from the Badlands all together.

Just as an all-out battle royal is about to start, Quinn and his men show up to crash the party. This sends Ryder fleeing through a window with Quinn in pursuit, but it leaves the rest of the Barons free to fight amongst themselves in a cleverly conceived and gorgeously executed battle scene in which each Baron must rely on small weapons they were able to hide on their person and whatever they can improvise from what’s close at hand. The standout here is Waldo’s weaponized wheelchair, but Chau and the Widow trying to stab each other with their stiletto heels is pretty cool as well. Sadly, this fight is over almost too quickly when Tilda shows up to help her mother and Waldo even the odds a little. The other Barons flee while these three stand over a courtyard full of dead and dying clippers. Something tells me that the Widow isn’t going to abandon her lands without a fight, vote or no.

The second major emotional climax of the episode is Quinn’s final confrontation with Ryder. First, however, Quinn comes face to face with Jade, who begs Quinn for Ryder’s life. It’s an interesting moment for Jade, who has at times seemed cold and patronizing towards Ryder and is certainly a master manipulator of her husband, but who here seems truly desperate to save him from Quinn. It smartly complicates Jade’s character to have her love for Ryder be genuine, and not a moment too soon as she seems poised by the end of this episode to become a much bigger player over the rest of the season. Quinn is almost respectful towards Jade and ends up ignoring her to chase after Ryder, who has entered an enormous hedge maze.

The race through the maze ends in front of a statue of Laocoön that Quinn mistakes for Kronos, an intriguing classical allusion that I spent far more time than I’d like to admit today trying to figure out the symbolism of. It’s obvious that Quinn sees himself as Kronos, but it’s less clear what connection we’re supposed to draw between the story of Quinn and Ryder and the story of Laocoön and his sons. Even less clear than that is where either of these guys learned classics with no formal education. In any case, Quinn wants Ryder to kill him, while Ryder still just wants his dad to love him. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, and it does. In the end, Quinn is the one who ends up killing Ryder (or at least it looks like Ryder is dead) and immediately regretting it before running away. The final shot of the episode is Jade weeping over Ryder’s body as Quinn retreats. It’s a surprising and abrupt ending for a character who had seemed to be just at the beginning of his story.

Miscellaneous Thoughts:

  • What’s the deal with the white streaks in so many people’s hair this week?
  • M.K. probably killed his mother himself, apparently, which would explain why he dissociated from it so much that he can’t remember what happened and it’s fractured his personality.
  • I missed Chipo Chung this week.
  • Are Tilda and Odessa getting flirty?
  • How, exactly, did Quinn get Gabriel into Ryder’s household as an inside man? When was this decision made? Quinn’s whole plan here is woefully underdeveloped.
  • I worry that we’re getting into “Strong Female Characters must be Buffy-style ass-kickers” territory with all the show’s women. Lydia having to kill in self-defense made a certain sense; Lydia was always fierce in a way that suggested that she had the potential for that, and that fierceness was at least part of why she left her father’s cult to begin with. Veil has always had other strengths, though. And with Ryder’s probable death at the end of this episode, it seems as if Jade may be being set up to become another Widow-type character. Part of what I’ve always loved about this show was that it had a decent variety of women with different types of strength. It would be a shame for that to change.

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: April 9, 2017

So, the big news of this week, for me, is that SF Bluestocking is a Hugo Finalist for Best Fanzine, and I cannot even begin to express the depth of my gratitude for everyone who thought well enough of this blog to nominate it for the honor. I’m honestly still just blown away that this is a thing that has happened in the world, and I’m beyond thrilled to be in such fine company in the Best Fanzine category. Thank you, truly and with many superlatives, to those who nominated me, and welcome to new readers, which I know there are a few of this week. I’m glad you’re here.

Even better news: last year’s rules tweaks seem to have led most of the various Rabid and Sad Puppies to change their tactics and/or just lose interest in griefing the awards altogether. There’s still a smidgen of puppy influence, but it’s little enough that I feel pretty confident saying that this year’s finalist list is, overall, the strongest and most diverse one in the years that I’ve been following the awards.

If you want to get a head start on reading for the awards, File 770 has already collected links to where you can read this year’s finalists online for free.

io9 talked with Stix Hiscock, the pseudonymous author of this year’s Rabid Puppy troll pick, the Best Novelette finalist “Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By the T-Rex,” and she seems nice.

For the first time since 1971, a music album has been nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. It’s an experimental hip hop album by clipping., Splendor & Misery, and it’s brilliant. Pitchfork has the scoop on why this nomination is important.

This year’s finalist list for the Nommo Awards, given by the African Speculative Fiction Society to celebrate work by African authors, was also released this week.

Tor.com shared their lists of all (or at least a lot) of the releases to look for in April:

Fantasy Cafe’s annual Women in SF&F Month began:

You can read the schedule for week two here.

Predictably, the Ghost in the Shell movie starring Scarlett Johansson is flopping, big time and largely because of the white-washing of the lead role. The best thing I’ve read about it yet is this round table discussion about it with Keiko Agena, Tracy Kato-Kiriyama, Atsuko Okatsuka and Ai Yoshihara at The Hollywood Reporter.

Troy L. Wiggins wrote about why black characters in fantasy need backstories.

A. Merc Rustad’s So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories is at the top of my must-read list for this spring, so I was pleased to see them interviewed at Quick Sip Reviews.

It’s been a cool five years since Kristin Cashore’s last novel, but there’s finally a title, cover and excerpt for her next one, Jane, Unlimited.

George Takei is writing a graphic novel to be published sometime next year.

Sarah Gailey and Max Gladstone chatted about Gladstone’s now Hugo-nominated Craft Sequence. Also, you can now get the first five books in a digital omnibus edition for just $12.

Ruthanna Emrys (Winter Tide) wrote about the optimism of H.P. Lovecraft.

P. Djeli Clark’s review of Andre M. Carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction is a reminder that I literally have a copy of the book three feet away from me and I haven’t started it yet but definitely ought to, ASAP.

Mari Ness continued her fairy tale blog series at Tor.com with a post about one of my favorite fairy tales, The Goose Girl.

The first title in the Book Smugglers’ new Novella Initiative has a title, cover and release date: Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn will be out on April 18th.

Black Girl Nerds posted on why Doctor Who‘s black gay character matters.

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together’s Dystopian Visions series is still going strong:

Aliette de Bodard’s newest novel, House of Binding Thorns, was out on Tuesday, and she’s been making the rounds promoting it:

The second half of Uncanny #15 is now available online, and you should definitely drop everything you’re doing and go read Sarah Pinsker’s wonderful short novella “And Then There Were (N-One).” It’s the first novella ever published in Uncanny, it starts with a convention for Sarahs from thousands of alternate universes, and it’s my early favorite for best novella of 2017. Truly superb and a very fun read.

Finally, Fireside Fiction has added a new $20 tier to their Patreon. $5/month will go to support the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, and you also get a rad Antifascist Fiction Club pin.

Sci-fi and Fantasy books, tv, films, and feminism