Introducing: Let’s Read! Gormenghast

2016 was not a great year for me, and this was reflected nowhere more strongly than in my failure to finish my Let’s Read! coverage of Dune. It turns out that a summer full of travel and an autumn and winter full of one personal and financial crisis after another, combined with a book that I just didn’t care for that much isn’t a winning recipe for productivity. I got derailed early in last year’s project, and never quite managed to get back on track, so by the time the end of the year rolled around I decided to just call it quits and start planning my next project.

I knew early on that it was going to be Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy. I’d watched the BBC miniseries based on the books back in 2000, partly because I had a huge crush on Jonathan Rhys Meyers at the time and partly because I was deep into epic fantasy at the time and Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring was still a year away. I remember that Gormenghast miniseries being dark and weird, suffused with gloom and a pervasive sense of irony that borders on visual sarcasm; I loved it, even when I didn’t “get” it because I was a teenager, and teenagers rarely get anything that’s worth really getting. In any case, gotten or not, Gormenghast has stuck with me all these years, so when I was brainstorming classic SFF works to read and blog in 2017 it was at the top of my list. After spending a couple of years reading some classics of science fiction (Dune, Childhood’s End, and others), it felt natural to go with fantasy this time around.

I actually tried to read Gormenghast back in the early aughts, but the enormous annotated version of the trilogy I bought back then was impossible to enjoy—too-small print, too-thin pages, too heavy to hold comfortably and too large to fit in any purse I owned—so it went the way of my old copy of Ulysses, which I also never got more than a couple dozen pages into. This time around, I knew I needed to look for some more manageable copies of the books if I was going to spend some months reading and writing about them.

In the end, I settled on the Ballantine mass markets first printed in the late 1960s (though mine are later printings ranging from 1974 to 1977—Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, if you’d like to copy my exact reading experience. These editions have some gorgeously strange cover art Bob Pepper, whose work you might recognize from numerous other Ballantine covers from the 60s and 70s (including works by Asimov, Ellison, Moorcock, Dick and others). They also include the author’s original illustrations inside the books, a reasonable print size, and the pleasant weight of paper and nice glued bindings that characterize older mass markets. These things, if you take care of them, will last practically forever. Plus, old books smell amazing (if you’re into that sort of thing, and I am).

That said, all three books in the trilogy are conveniently broken up into chapters, which is how I’ve split them up into bite-sized sections—fifteen sections around 34 pages each in the first two books and ten sections around 28 pages or so each in the third one, which is a good deal shorter than the first two. I’ll be covering three sections per week starting on Monday, June 5. I’m also planning on, perhaps after the first book, perhaps at the end of the project, rewatching the 2000 mini-series to see how it holds up after all these years and examine how it works as an adaptation of the books.

The first three posts will cover:

  • Part One: Chapters 1-3
  • Part Two: Chapters 4-9
  • Part Three: Chapters 10-13

After this, I will include further section information as part of my weekly State of the Blog post as well as at the end of the last post in the series each week. Additionally, each post will be tagged “Let’s Read! Gormenghast” and there will be a link straight to the project on the navigation bar at the top of the blog.

Readers, I am so excited about this project. While the US might be going to hell in a handbasket, I have no expectation of any barriers on my end to staying on task and finishing this project as planned, and having started the reading, I can already tell I’m going to love these books. It’s going to be a fun summer here at SF Bluestocking.

iZombie: “Twenty-Sided, Die” is the best episode

“Twenty-Sided, Die” is by far the strongest episode of the season so far, and it’s probably my personal favorite episode of iZombie of all time. It’s got a good case of the week along with some excellent big picture plot development, and Liv gets to DM a D&D game for her friends. Spoiler: It’s glorious.

**Real spoilers below.**

Last week’s episode ended on a tense note, with Ravi going alone and unarmed into a meeting for the local zombie conspiracy theorists, and this episode starts with showing us how that goes. Fortunately, it’s not as awful as it could have been, and Ravi gets out intact, but it’s definitely a meeting full of bad news for Seattle’s zombies. Harley Johns has identified Floyd Baracus as a zombie, and he’s got files on numerous other people he suspects. He’s also got a plan to kidnap a zombie and starve it, then publicize it in order to convince the public of the existence of zombies and to highlight the threat they pose. Thinking quickly, Ravi reveals his identity and claims to be working on a zombie vaccine, urging Harley and the others to delay their plans. At the end of the episode, however, we find out that even Ravi’s sensible urging of caution isn’t enough to stop Harley and his brother from capturing a zombie at the first opportunity. They’ve collared a berserk Don E. and brought him straight to Ravi thinking that Ravi might have a tranquilizer that would calm Don E. down.

Don E. is going berserk, of course, because he’s gotten into Blaine’s new product: the brain of a WWII veteran and ladies’ man that has been soaking in Ravi’s blue memory serum liquid for twenty days. After Tanner enjoys the experience after eating a tiny sliver of the blue brain as a test, Don E. takes a much larger piece for a spin, and it looks like they’ve discovered the potential downside of the product. Too bad Blaine isn’t around to know about it. Riding the high of the initial successful test of blue brains, Blaine heads out to the well where he dumped his dad last week to have a nice, long gloat. Too top off the list of things Blaine doesn’t know about that might derail Blaine’s optimism, the episode ends with Mr. Boss coming back to town, an unexpected development that doesn’t bode well for pretty much any of the main cast and adds yet another subplot to an already packed story.

This week’s murder mystery is a weird one. A dungeon master running a weekly D&D game night is poisoned, and his circle of gamer friends—including police sketch artist Jimmy and IT guy Vampire Steve—come under suspicion for the crime. However, as Liv and Clive slowly clear each member of the group, they stumble upon a hidden room at the DM’s apartment that houses some advanced looking computers tied to Russian power plants. It’s weird, and it’s even weirder when the case goes unsolved by the end of the episode. Apparently, it’s a situation that’s enough about Liv and Clive’s pay grade that the FBI takes over, which offers a chance for Dale Bozzio to come back and break Clive’s (and our) heart all over again. It’s unclear so far whether this is the end of this case and the final nail in the coffin of the Clive-Dale romance or if this is yet another new story thread being woven into the mix, but it seems awful late in the season to be bringing back not one, but two characters that it seemed we’d seen the last of so long ago.

The highlight of the episode is Liv on dungeon master brains. Sure, her dice-rolling outside the game setting is odd and leans a little too hard on supernerd stereotypes, but Liv pressing her friends into service so she can run a D&D session in an effort to trigger a vision is everything perfect about this show. Of course Peyton is the kind of player who asks why they can’t just kill the quest giver for the reward instead of going on the quest. Ravi resuscitating Peyton’s character to keep her in the game was hilarious—and of course Ravi is an engaged and knowledgeable player despite mocking this particular kind of nerdery. Obviously Major plays a paladin. And even more obviously, Clive is the guy who isn’t into it until he is and then he’s really into it. It’s a scene that is clearly written and filmed with love for the game and deep knowledge and care of the show’s characters, and everyone in it seems to be having so much fun it’s infectious. I would definitely watch this group play D&D Critical Role-style, is what I’m saying.

Miscellany:

  • After the meeting at the beginning of the episode, Ravi meets a photographer named Rachel, who I’m curious to see more of. She wants to photograph a zombie, but it also seems like she could be a possible new love interest for Ravi.
  • Ravi hiding all Major’s hatemail is very sweet.
  • Major inviting this Shawna woman over sight unseen is just weird. (Also just plain ill-advised.)
  • Not as weird as how totally fine Major is with Liv dating Justin. He’s even giving Liv his stash of brain tubes so she can be herself with Justin.
  • It’s also not as weird as Liv being much more girlfriend-y with Justin than has really been established so far. This show has never been a romance-heavy program, but we’ve only seen them go on a couple of dates, and things onscreen have been decidedly PG so far. I dunno. It’s fine. Honestly, I’m just worried for Justin. He seems nice, and Liv’s boyfriends do not have a great life expectancy.
  • Liv finally meets Chase Graves, and he’s intense. Also, flirting with Liv? I kind of ship it because I’m trash, but also because I’m firmly on Team Protect Justin.
  • Peyton is getting increasingly suspicious about the dominatrix murder case, especially when her boss Baracus tells her to drop it and then Liv tells her that Baracus was one of the dominatrix’s clients.
  • Best line delivery of the episode: Clive shouting, “Where is the lich?!”

iZombie: “Eat a Knievel” takes some risks, but not necessarily the right ones

After a couple of lackluster episodes, I had high hopes for “Eat a Knievel” after seeing the preview for it last week. Eh. It’s alright. The case of the week is decent, if predictable, and there’s some major progress made in some of the show’s other plotlines as well. Not all the plot progress is great, and there’s at least one highly questionable turn of events, but “Eat a Knievel” is at least a solid enough episode to deserve its extremely rad title.

**Spoilers ahead.**

The best development of the week is Blaine’s return to villainy. Last week ended with Blaine shot and left for dead by one of his dad’s flunkies; this week starts with Blaine hunting down one of his own ex-clients to ask for a scratch and directions to where Don E. and Angus are working. It ends with Blaine encasing his father’s feet in cement and dropping him into a well on their family property before heading off to have an almost-touching reunion with Don E. Blaine has always been best as a villain, and his amnesiac turn sucked a good deal of the life out of him; returned to zombie form and freed from the constraints of trying to be a better man, he showed more vim and vigor this week than he has in the whole rest of the season so far. The only thing missing was a Blaine musical number.

The other event of significance is the apparent murder of Vivian Stoll, right after she figured out that Major is human. This is the questionable part of things. The arrival of Vivian and Fillmore Graves on the scene at the end of season two was promising, and they figured largely in the first couple episodes of season three before being moved to a decidedly back burner in recent weeks so the show could focus more on the personal drama of Major’s illness and de-zombie-fying and Blaine’s faked amnesia. While we’ve seen some of the Fillmore Graves crew (mostly in Major’s storyline), there hasn’t been any new development on the bigger Fillmore Graves storyline (whatever that’s supposed to be) in weeks.

When one of the first scenes in this episode was a sort of update meeting with Clive, Liv and Major reporting to Vivian, it seemed that we might be coming back around to some of the bigger picture zombie stuff that Fillmore Graves represents. Instead, what we get is the Fillmore Graves leadership team killed and the company taken over by Vivian’s brother-in-law, who’s some kind of aggressively militaristic loose cannon. It’s unlikely that any good will come of this change in management, and it seems at least somewhat likely that the new guy is behind Vivian’s death to begin with, but with Vivian dead Major’s secret (that he’s human again) is still safe—even if Major himself is decidedly less so.

The case of the week involved the murder of one “Finn Vincible,” who is less Evel Knievel (excellent episode title pun, though) and more Jackass. The identity of the murderer—Finn Vincible’s producer, Rudy—is heavily telegraphed from the very start of the investigation, though it takes most of the episode to ferret out his motive. Because this season seems to be all about investigating the murders of the worst people, we learn that Finn “pranked” Rudy by supposedly fake-banging Rudy’s then-girlfriend-now-wife. Rudy only finds out that the affair was real when his wife gives birth to a baby that is obviously Finn’s, so Rudy sabotages one of Finn’s stunts. There aren’t too many surprises here, and it would have been nice to get a little more interaction with Finn’s acquaintances, but it’s a totally serviceable murder mystery that doesn’t interfere too much with all the much more interesting and significant stuff that’s happening around it in this episode.

Liv on jackass brain isn’t as hilarious as she could have been, but she’s also not nearly as insufferable and unfunny as she was on the last couple brains she’s had. It’s almost all worth it for the shot of Liv sitting in on an interrogation with staples in her face; Clive’s facial expression in that scene alone is almost enough to carry the whole episode. His reaction faces to Liv’s antics have always been great, but they’re reaching a whole new level of amazing now that Clive knows that Liv is a zombie and understands how the brains affect her. The other thing that happens with Liv on jackass brains is her second date with Justin. She cooks up some brains for him so they can be on the same brain together, and then they go out and play with lawn darts before sharing a nice kiss. It’s really too bad that Justin seems doomed; I like him a lot (even if it does still seem weird how fast Liv has moved past Major), but he’s already had multiple foreshadowing events that suggest that the iZombie universe is out to kill him.

The episode finishes with Liv and Ravi trying to sneak into an anti-zombie conspiracy theorist event, but Liv is forced to turn back at the door when they realize that the zombie-haters are checking blood pressure at the door to prevent exactly this sort of thing. In the end, we’re left with an almost-cliffhanger—I mean, it’s tense, but it’s not really high stakes enough for proper cliffhanger status—as Ravi enters into the anti-zombie event alone to find out what these folks know and how organized they really are.

Miscellany:

  • “Stop talking. You had me at ‘money.’”
  • I suppose this episode finally lays to rest the theory that it was the Fillmore Graves folk who stole the cure from the morgue. The more I think about it, the more my money is on Blaine as the culprit. We saw him messing around with making his own batch of Ravi’s blue memory serum, so could Blaine be looking to sell the cure for top dollar and then charge people for the memory serum as well to “cure” the temporary amnesia? With no other likely suspects, this seems as plausible as any other theories I’ve seen.

Movie Review – King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

As a longtime lover of all things Arthurian for whom Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels used to be a favorite movie, there was no way that I wasn’t going to go see this glorious mess at the first opportunity. If you’re like me, and the trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword filled you with unironically joyful anticipation for this film, you will probably love the finished product, which is basically the trailer, but two hours long and on an enormous screen in a dark room. It’s all giant magic war elephants, fast-talking heist-planning, aggressively ugly action scenes, and hilariously confused imagery. I don’t think I stopped smiling from the first frame to the last, though I also lost count of the number of times I gleefully whispered, “What the fuck?” to myself. I adore this movie.

To the degree that King Arthur deserves serious analysis, it’s not as bad as you might expect. Like all of Guy Ritchie’s oeuvre that I’ve seen (which admittedly isn’t all, as I’m by no means a great fan of his), this movie is heavily focused on exploring the filmmaker’s seemingly complicated feelings about class and masculinity. What’s interesting about King Arthur, however, as opposed to Ritchie’s early work, is the presence of women and the way that the film’s masculine identities are constructed around the characters’ interactions with women. Whereas movies like Snatch and Lock, Stock didn’t feature any women at all, being entirely concerned with men and their homosocial interactions as a microcosm within which to explore broader (if only slightly) social issues, women figure prominently in King Arthur and in a variety of roles.

It’s not that the women of King Arthur are particularly interesting on their own—indeed, only the Mage and Maggie get any appreciable speaking time—the way they exist in the narrative and what they mean to the male characters is kind of fascinating.

Arthur’s mother could almost be considered a classic case of fridging, but the truth is that the deaths of Arthur’s parents occur at the same time in a scene that, visually, recalls the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents several iterations of the Batman origin story as much as anything else. And make no mistake about it, this King Arthur is a super hero, which is an obvious and natural modern interpretation of the source material that ought to be accepted in order to best understand and enjoy this version of the story. While it’s primarily Arthur’s father, Uther, whose death Arthur must come to terms with to learn how to control the power of Excalibur, the trauma of his mother’s death is revisited numerous times throughout the movie as well, and she’s not forgotten or ignored even if she isn’t especially important.

While King Arthur has commonly been interpreted as a Christ figure, our earliest significant image of this Arthur is his being pulled out of the river like Moses when he’s found floating on the Thames by some prostitutes, who then raise the boy in their brothel in Londinium. These women (with a single, sadly fridged exception, Lucy) remain unnamed, and while the adult Arthur seems to respect and care for them—even working as a sort of bouncer for the brothel and taking actions to keep the women safe and avenge wrongs against them—the montage of Arthur’s childhood suggests that he was largely left to run wild, growing up on the streets with a couple of similar-age male friends and being taught how to fight by some of the adult men in their neighborhood community. It’s a kind of bizarre case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it, too; we’re meant to understand these women as important to Arthur, to understand Arthur as a man who likes and cares about women (and, to be fair, Arthur in the movie is unfailingly polite, gentle and respectful of the women he interacts with), but we’re also meant to understand Arthur as having practically raised himself. He’s a fantasy of a very literally self-made man, pulling himself up by his bootstraps through hard work, cleverness and a charm I would normally describe as “rakish” if it wasn’t so weirdly sexless (not that he’s lacking sex appeal, however).

Many critics have pointed out that the mythology of the movie, just in general, has little to do with classic Arthuriana, and one of the more interesting departures from the source material is to eschew Merlin almost entirely. He’s mentioned, almost as if the writers wanted to make sure the audience knew that they had read some King Arthur stuff, but Arthur’s magical mentor here is instead a woman who works for Merlin. The Mage is never given a proper name, and this interestingly works well to prevent the audience from projecting expectations on her. I spent the whole movie thinking she would eventually be revealed as Morgana or Nimue or maybe even Guinevere, but she never was, and it’s kind of amazing. Though the Mage doesn’t get much of a character arc of her own (the film is pretty strictly from Arthur’s point of view), the decision to avoid naming her as any of the classic Arthurian women lets us interpret her without any of the centuries of baggage those names carry, allowing the Mage to exist as a wholly original character. Surprisingly, she never becomes a love interest for Arthur—is not, in fact, sexualized at all—and while she is at one point captured by Vortigern she’s also never portrayed as a damsel in distress. Instead, Arthur is able to simply negotiate for her release in exchange for himself, and she’s returned unharmed and ready to help him in his final battle against Vortigern. We never actually see her trapped or suffering or powerless on screen, and though she doesn’t save herself from this situation, it’s a minor beat in the larger story and her capture and release is never given enough emotional weight to conform to the usual damsel in distress pattern. All in all, it’s a neat way of averting an all-too-common (and frankly boring) sexist trope.

Maggie is a woman working in Vortigern’s household, and while it’s not entirely clear what her job is—Cook? Maid? Concubine? Vortigern sarcastically calls her a representative of the people, but then he also has her escorting him when he travels, so who knows?—her importance in the story is as a spy for the resistance against Vortigern. Maggie is competent, brave and loyal to the cause. Oddly, though, she never actually interacts directly with Arthur. Instead, she reports on her spying to Bedivere, and her most memorable interactions are with Vortigern when he realizes (somehow) that she’s a spy. What’s interesting about Maggie is that she doesn’t die tragically once her duplicity is found out, but lives right on to the end of the movie, where it’s visually hinted at that she is paired off with Bedivere.

If Arthur is meant to be understood as a man who values and respects women, even as he avoids romantic entanglements, Vortigern is the opposite. One of Vortigern’s first actions in the movie is to sacrifice his wife to gain magic powers so he can defeat his brother, Uther. One of his last actions is to sacrifice his daughter to the same evil-seeming creature (which, incidentally, is three women and a bunch of slimy tentacles) in exchange for yet more power in his futile quest to possess Excalibur. This is by no means a feminist film, and it may be the most generous interpretation of it, but it’s easy to read Vortigern’s willingness to destroy women—even those he claims to love—as a key to his downfall and Arthur’s respect for women as a key to his success.

Ultimately, though, this is a movie about masculinity. Arthur’s coming of age and acceding the throne is tied directly to his ability to control Excalibur, a sword (this sword, even) being a classic phallic symbol. Vortigern’s power is represented in an enormous tower, even more aggressively phallic than Arthur’s sword—especially when we consider that Arthur treats Excalibur casually (e.g. letting it drag on the ground, allowing it to be passed around and carried by his various friends, easily lending it to Bedivere so that Bedivere can knight Arthur’s friends) and with some ambivalence of feeling (there’s a whole sequence where he tries to throw the sword away and the Lady of the Lake has to convince him to take it back), while Vortigern’s tower is jealously guarded and vigorously defended. It feels as if this wants to be a rejection of toxic masculinity—represented by Vortigern and his armies—in favor of a more sociable, constructive masculinity as represented by Arthur, with much of the meaning conveyed through their respective interactions with women, but it’s honestly a mixed bag. There’s a lot to analyze, but for a movie that’s not actually about women at all, there are so many female characters that it’s genuinely hard to make heads or tails of what the filmmakers are trying to say about them.

Miscellany:

  • Charlie Hunnam wears far too many shirts in this movie. Yeah, there’s a nice scene where he wakes up and pulls his shirt off and we get to feast our eyes upon his gorgeous back muscles, but even that was too short. Know your audience, Guy Ritchie.
  • Someone ought to write more about the bizarre use of religious and pagan imagery in this movie. It’s downright bananas, and it doesn’t even stick to just classic Arthurian retelling stuff like trying to visually represent the conflict between Roman-influenced Christianity and the indigenous religions of Britain.
  • In an age where the artfully gritty gore of Game of Thrones and the surreal stylized hyper-violence of American Gods are the fashion, this movie’s violence feels almost old-fashioned. There’s a high body count in King Arthur, but there’s very little blood and no guts to speak of. Also notably absent is the sexualized violence against women that is so endemic in Game of Thrones. When Lucy is abused by the Vikings early in the film it’s left deliberately vague what has happened to her, her injuries are painful-looking but relatively minor, and (most importantly) we’re not shown any of that violence at all—much less shown it in the gleefully gratuitous torture-porny manner that Game of Thrones has popularized. The violence of King Arthur is largely sanitized comic book-style violence, and that’s a good thing.
  • Jude Law is an absolutely perfect scenery-chewing villain.
  • I genuinely hope that a miracle happens and this movie is financially successful enough for it to continue as a franchise. I would gladly watch a dozen more just like it.

Into the Badlands: In “Wolf’s Breath, Dragon Fire,” are you fucking kidding me with this?

Sometimes a show is disappointing for doing the easy, predictable thing. Into the Badlands, however, disappoints by doing something so unexpectedly cruel it verges on nihilistic.

**Spoilers ahead.**

As a conclusion to the season, “Wolf’s Breath, Dragon Fire” is far better than the season one finale at wrapping things up, but there’s still quite a lot of unanswered questions and unfinished business by the end, even regarding the show’s biggest storylines. Unfortunately, basically everything in the episode is completely overshadowed by the senselessly unnecessary and tragic death of Veil, which is hands down the most infuriating thing I’ve seen on television so far in 2017.

It’s been a tough season for Veil from start to finish, as she’s spent ten episodes as Quinn’s prisoner, trying to survive and protect her infant son from Quinn’s increasing brain tumor-fueled madness and violence. The damsel in distress trope is played out enough on its own, but it worked well for most of the season, partly because there’s still a certain amount of novelty in the damselled romantic lead being a black woman and partly because Veil has had numerous opportunities throughout the season to distinguish herself as a strong character with as much agency as her volatile circumstances have allowed.

In a sense, this continues in the finale; Veil’s death is, more or less, by her own hand as she runs herself through in order to strike a killing blow against Quinn. But the way that we get to that point in the first place is just absurd, even for a show in which characters routinely take a bananas amount of punishment before dying. Quinn, having survived Sunny’s season one attempt on his life—nursed back to health by Veil herself—has survived a brain tumor all this season. He’s survived the Widow and Lydia and even just narrowly missed out on another attempt on his life by Veil on their wedding night. Just in this episode, Quinn survives his own explosion to collapse the tunnels of his hideout, and he then survives being impaled through chest twice before he even lays hands on Veil. Honestly, just the idea that Sunny wouldn’t make damn sure of a killing blow of his own before turning his back on Quinn is absolutely mindboggling, and it costs Veil her life.

Honestly, I just don’t know if I can keep watching this show after this. It’s the second time this season that a woman has been blatantly fridged (I haven’t forgotten Ava), and that this time it’s the only woman of color in the main cast is unforgivable. Veil was a great character who was a valuable bit of representation in a show with a tendency to give white women the more exciting, ass-kicking storylines. Even through all the shit Veil had to put up with this season—which, frankly, got to be straight up torture porn at times—she endured and schemed and was constantly waiting for her moment to escape. There’s no reason at all to have Veil sacrifice herself in this way except to reorient the narrative so that the viewer is reminded that this show really is all about Sunny after all.

I suppose, in Sunny’s story, Veil is disposable. Which… fine. But I don’t want to watch a story where that’s the case, especially when we’ve been told all season that it wasn’t.

For a more in-depth write-up of just how fucked up this all is and why it’s hurtful and disappointing, be sure to check out Monique Jones’s piece on the episode over at Black Girl Nerds.

Doctor Who: “Extremis” isn’t nearly as interesting an experiment as Steven Moffat thinks it is

**This is a spoilery review.**

You can tell, watching “Extremis,” that Steven Moffat thinks he’s very clever. It’s a Moffat episode through and through, with all the self-satisfied smugness and overwrought convolutions that come along with that. The thing is, “Extremis” isn’t experimental or groundbreaking or particularly intriguing. It’s what amounts to a dream sequence mashed together with an extended flashback. Which is fine. But there’s not much actual story here, just exposition about the past and set-up for the future, none of which is nearly as compelling as Steven Moffat seems to think it is.

Perhaps the most significant part of the episode, if only because it’s the part of the episode that’s easiest to make good sense of, is the flashbacks that work on multiple levels. Most viewers have been saying for weeks that the vault under the university must contain Missy, and this is confirmed in “Extremis.”  While it’s not clear what for (and it could be any number of things, really), sometime shortly after the end of the Doctor’s time on Darillium Missy is sentenced to death, and the Doctor is summoned to be her executioner. While the Doctor hems and haws about whether he should pull the kill lever and Missy begs for her life, Nardole shows up and reads to the Doctor from River Song’s diary. He’s been sent by River to take care of the Doctor, which explains why he’s been lurking around all season, just waiting for this episode to have something important to do.

The other half of the episode finds the Doctor (seemingly) called upon by no less personage than the Pope himself to help translate an important religious text. It’s this part of the episode that is most frustratingly Moffat-eque, falling apart to a large degree if you think about it for more than a minute. There are some great moments, both humorous and dramatic, and we’re introduced to a menacing new enemy of humanity, but the truth is that the Veritas and the Doctor’s quest to understand it just doesn’t add up to anything that makes much sense at all. In the end, we learn that what we’ve been watching is simply a simulation being run by an invading species of aliens to work through how they’re going to get past Earth’s defenses. As other characters commit suicide in droves at their realization of their own unreality and his friends simply dissolve into pixels, the AI Doctor inside the simulation puts it all together and turns out to be so lifelike that his own way of dealing with unreality is to send an email to the real Doctor and let him know what’s going on, setting up what seems to be the big bad of the season.

Unfortunately, none of this holds up to much scrutiny. The biggest unanswered question, though, is a simple one, and the lack of an answer undermines the whole premise of the episode: If what we are watching, for most of the episode, is a simulation put on by aliens with a plan to invade Earth, and the real Doctor doesn’t find out about any of this until the end of the episode when the simulation Doctor contacts him, where did the invading aliens get the data for their simulation? And if they can either access data (such as the Doctor’s blindness) that only the Doctor and Nardole know about and they can build a meticulously lifelike simulation for their purposes, are they seriously still limited by a quirk of random number generation? Also, they can’t lock down their network so that their own AIs can’t become self-aware and contact real people outside the simulation? It’s such a common Moffat-era Who problem that complaints about it are frankly just banal at this point.

In the end, “Extremis” isn’t nearly as profound or experimental as Steven Moffat intends it to be, but it nonetheless manages to be entertaining. The Pope and several Cardinals pouring out of Bill’s bedroom to interrupt her date is legit hilarious, even if it does happen in the simulation. The Doctor’s suggestion to Bill that she go for it with real life Penny, even though Bill thinks Penny is out of her league, is sweet. Michelle Gomez is a constant delight as Missy. There are some interesting ideas about religion and faith being explored, even if only in the most facile manner. Like many a Moffat-penned episode, “Extremis” is fine as long as one doesn’t think too hard about it.

Miscellany:

  • One Moffat-era trope I wish would disappear forever is people all over the universe being absolutely terrified of the Doctor’s wrath after basically reading the first page of his Google search results. It’s tiresome and patronizing, and the Doctor isn’t actually that dangerous unless you’re a Dalek.
  • I hope we get to see more of Bill with Penny, who seems nice.
  • The visual comparison of River Song’s diary to a Bible is potentially interesting, but it’s pretty much left at that.
  • After last week’s episode using zombie imagery of a kind, it seemed redundant to have this one do the same, even if it was a different take on the zombie look and especially if these zombie aliens are going to make another appearance or two.

State of the Blog and Weekend Links: May 21, 2017

I would love to have a week go by without some large (or at least large-feeling) part of it spent on dealing with life crises. This week, it was my car again; after having some expensive work done on it last week, I was back at the shop again this week with more mystery problems. Fortunately, everything has been under warranty, but it’s still stressful and frustrating and time-consuming to deal with when I’d much rather be working on other things. Add to that the fact that apparently no one makes/sells a classy-looking cat cookie cutter small enough to be cut out in fondant that would fit on top of a cupcake (my daughter has pretty specific late birthday cupcake desires), and it’s not been a great week.

That said, I’m looking forward to the rest of May and June. Hopefully my car troubles are finally solved (I’m really trying to be optimistic about it); this week is my daughter’s last week of 8th grade; Into the Badlands wraps up tonight, which will free up my Mondays for a little while; and a week from this Monday is the premiere of Still Star-Crossed, which is probably the thing I’m most excited to watch this summer. This week, I’ll also be figuring out my schedule for my big summer blogging project, Let’s Read! Gormenghast, and I expect to be starting that the first week of June. It’s shaping up to be an awesome next few months, barring any major disasters.

The big story of this weekend is the Nebula Awards, which were given out last night. Congratulations to all the winners!

Earlier in the week, George R.R. Martin talked a little bit about all the Game of Thrones spinoff series pilots that HBO has ordered. I’m still processing my feelings about this, but I’m basically stuck on appalled horror at the thought of it all at the moment. I guess we can only hope that Benioff and Weiss aren’t involved in any of it.

In more exciting news, a new anthology edited by Navah Wolfe and Dominik Parisien was announced this week: Robots vs. Fairiesset to be released in trade paperback in January 2018.

Also released this week was the first proper trailer for Star Trek: Discovery. I’m still a little concerned about the final project after its production delays and creative staff shakeups, but this looks awesome:

If you’re looking for something good and short and fiction to read this week, be sure to check out Mikki Kendall’s “Snow White” over at Fireside Fiction.

Black Gate has an exclusive preview of Archipelago, a new shared world serial novel being Kickstarted by Charlotte Ashley, Andrew Leon Hudson and Kurt Hunt. They had me at “pirates, monsters and world-changing magic.” Check out the campaign.

At Lady Business, Ira and Anna tried to boil the Vorkosigan Saga down to five books. I’ve been meaning to read this series for a while, and this is genuinely helpful guidance for where I might want to start with it.

Tor.com is selling a bundle of their Hugo-nominated works for just $20, perfect if you aren’t a Worldcon member.

Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog teamed up for a Space Opera Week, which was slightly underwhelming overall, but did manage to produce some good individual posts:

Perhaps the best contributions to Space Opera Week, however, were from Cora Buhlert on her own blog:

Finally, Pornokitsch talked about the largest ever analysis of film dialogue and how totally unsurprising the revelation that women have been getting shortchanged was.

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