The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Three

Yesterday, I created a Facebook Event for my Daily Telegraph short story, and, bless him, my Agent Simon made great efforts and, overnight, to my surprise, added a contest! So, if you’re a Facebook member, you can win a special big prize… though at this point I don’t know what that is. Go have a look at:

And I do apologise about what you have to do to enter. I’d have gone for ‘Simon is great’.

That petition I mentioned in the First Blog of Christmas, calling for Character Options to make an action figure of Harry Sullivan and the Giant Clam: 137 of you have signed it now. You do know that if it happens, we’re all now morally obliged to buy one?

Today, I’d like to mention a few media items that I thought were the best of their kind this year. Now, these aren’t all of my favourite things. My automatic first pick in a new pile of comics, for example, would be a Bendis Avengers, a Brubaker Captain America or Fables. But those titles are all vastly supported, and all my praise would be praise that has been uttered before. So there’s an element with the following of promoting things that perhaps need a bit of promotion. Or that I just foolishly believe I have new things to say about…

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. This show, (writer) Aaron Sorkin’s follow up to The West Wing, has been my absolute pleasure this year. It’s The West Wing about writers. It specifically concerns the cast and crew of a fictional late night variety show on American TV. It came to Britain having already been cancelled, despite huge initial ratings. In the first few episodes, that unfortunately feels slightly justified, as the show struggles to find a tone. But around week four, it decides who the central characters are and what’s fun, gets on a roll, and doesn’t let up. What I love about Sorkin’s writing is that watching one of his shows is like reading the new book by a favourite novelist. It’s immersive. It’s not an easy ride, and it’s not mitigated by the smoothing out process of tone meetings and what the market will bear. You know it’s going to hurt. (Indeed, I’ll sometimes actually hesitate before playing a new episode, when I’d like something more comforting: this is something I’ll return to in my blog about drama and audiences later this Christmas.) You’re in his head. He doesn’t plan ahead, he writes each show as a reaction to the last. It’s like watching someone expertly dancing on a highwire. When he’s casting around for what to do next, even when he’s having an off day, he’s at his most exciting, because things get a bit woozy and punch drunk and dreamy, and he’ll have a character just do something extreme, and see where that gets him. It means that these aren’t ‘characters’ in the sense of formed individuals, the quirks of which we can sympathise with and anticipate. These are written people, capable of the sudden chaotic surprises which contribute to character in the real world. Lest I make it sound like outsider art, the urbanity of his knowledge and his absolute commitment to sweetening the pot with at least one cracking high quality line of wit every thirty seconds make this a very satisfying ride too. Sorkin loves competence, and despises fools. All his best characters are people who know what they’re doing, and he can convince you he knows the details of that, from the very young doctor who we’re gradually shown has no people skills but is a great medic, to all the sides and strategies and complexes of great writers. The three-part episode ‘K&R’, which uses flashbacks to examine the differences between America now and in the immediate wake of 9/11, has claim to being one of Sorkin’s many masterpieces. In Sarah Paulson’s Harriet Hayes, not just a Christian, but an evangelical who leans to the right, Sorkin convinces us (as he didn’t quite do in The West Wing) with his ability to right empathetically for those opposite to himself, and presents someone who (apart from the evangelical and right wing bit) goes through situations and confrontations I recognise from my own life, and have never seen portrayed elsewhere. Her relationship-long row with Matthew Perry’s atheistic Matt Albie, pictured in a series of jump cuts of them having the row everywhere, from in bed to walking past Buckingham Palace, a theological debate which was also entirely about them and formed the centre of their compromised and difficult lives, was like watching the truth portrayed as a firework display. I know people who jumped this ship when Bradley Whitford’s character Danny Tripp went overboard in his declaration of love for Amanda Peet’s Jordan McDeere, and sounded and acted obsessive. Yes, he was scary for a moment there. He took a while to win us back. Because he wasn’t a character for a moment there. He was real. I’m sad it’s gone. I want to see Timothy Busfield and Allison Janney have yet another go at continuing their onscreen chemistry from The West Wing through this to something else. (And what other show would guest star her so they could do that?) I’m glad that Jennifer Aniston and Jasper Carrott (through his daughter Lucy Davis on this show) are now down to two degrees of separation. And I’m very glad Studio 60 existed.

The Atom. Gail Simone is one of my favourite comics writers, and this is my favourite, and somewhat neglected, book of hers, co-created with Grant Morrison. It’s the story of Ryan Choi, a professor at Ivy Town University, whose hero was fellow academic, and superhero, Ray Palmer. He finds himself taking on Palmer’s titular alter ego, and with it the equipment that allows him to shrink. But that’s not the point of the title. It most resembles a high end American television comedy drama, and, from issue one, is beautifully easy for newcomers to the DC universe, or even comics in general. Ivy Town is strange. There’s an alien civilization living on the fur of Ryan’s dog, one of whom (a floating disembodied head with an urgent turn of phrase) becomes Ryan’s flatmate. There’s a supervillain, Giganta, on the university staff. She fancies our hero, and, despite her having once, erm, swallowed him, he reciprocates as far as going out to dinner with her, which is unfortunately interrupted by his date having to battle Wonder Woman. The supporting cast of eccentric academics is as interesting as the superheroics, Ryan is an engaging hero who approaches his surreal adventures with a boggled scientific glee. And while this is the comic that most often makes me laugh out loud, it also had room for a moving story where Ryan goes home to Hong Kong to find that his childhood bullies are as terrible as he remembers them… and now also undead. The comic plays with the medium, having not only a narration by Choi, but apposite, or sometimes mocking, quotes placed as footnotes. The closest precedent I can think of is the work of Steve Gerber, and that’s the highest possible praise.

Overpowered by Roisin Murphy. The former singer with Moloko, post the break up of that band, initially dabbled in experimental electronica, before obviously thinking sod that for a game of soldiers, and deciding to have some huge pop hits again. This album should have given her some, and perhaps still will, because it’s the most approachable first listen I’ve heard in ages, playing like a greatest hits. This is dance pop of the highest order, soulful and atmospheric, with loads of romantic disco, Goldfrapp, Chic, Tom Tom Club and Prince thrown into the mix. You’ll hear noises on here that you only realise you’ve missed for a couple of decades now they’re back. The groove is the most important thing throughout, but Murphy has a fine turn of phrase, and an eye for atmospheric detail. ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ for example is a heartfelt declaration of a child’s love for her father. The next time James Bond walks into a club, Murphy ought to be onstage. Or better yet, give her the next theme. Lush.

I’ve read a lot of quality non-fiction this year, including Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which is what I’d sought for a long time, the book to read to know about the current state of knowledge concerning the universe. Now when there’s a New Scientist story about Planck Lengths (my new favourite thing, that physics doesn’t apply below certain sizes of space and time) or the holographic universe, or the staggering odds against the cosmos being suitable for life, I can follow. It turns out the moon is still there when we’re not looking at it. Probably. You know when you’re down the pub and someone starts talking about cosmology, and suddenly everyone’s meaningfully asserting bollocks for two hours? It’s probably more fun if everyone went off and read this instead. I’m also raced through Robert Harvey’s The War of Wars, a fantastic overview of the Napoleonic wars, from the causes of the French Revolution onwards. It’s widescreen, doesn’t have an axe to grind, and shows us Napoleon in his grandeur and shabbiness and once. Nelson, on the other hand, bar a few human flaws, makes a bloke get a little tearful with every single thing glorious thing he does.

In terms of fiction, it’s hard to know where to start. People like Chris Roberson, Stephen Baxter, Susannah Clarke, Ian McDonald and Simon Spurrier have entertained me vastly this year. (No David Louis Edelman until next year.) I’m looking forward to getting into Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora and Iain Banks’ Matter.

My magazine choices have been fixed pretty solidly at SFX, Wired, Fortean Times (which is rallying a bit now, having become a touch less ideological, though bagging it with The Week this month was a bit rubbish), Wired, New Scientist and The Word.

In anime, I’m just discovering the mindboggling New Romantic Heavy Metal lesbian swordfighting wonder that is Revolutionary Girl Utena. But that deserves a blog of its own. And it’s always good to use the word ‘lesbian’ in a blog over Christmas, because it boosts my hit rate enormously. Especially last year, when I mentioned Rude Lesbian Nurses. Oops, I did it again. I’ve already spoken of the delights of Samurai Champloo, and I thoroughly enjoyed the cutting edge SF of Paprika and Solid State Society, the former a somewhat more humane take on the cyberpunk thing that felt to me more authentically Japanese in its emotional outreach.

Today’s link comes courtesy of Cubicle 7, the chaps who are doing the new Doctor Who roleplaying game. Here’s their site, and a forum where they talk over some of the things they’re planning to do:

I’m sure I’ve missed something. I’m sure I’ve missed something important. But I’m equally sure you’ll tell me. Until tomorrow, Cheerio!

15 Response to "The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Three"

  • heatherfeather Says:

    "And it’s always good to use the word ‘lesbian’ in a blog over Christmas, because it boosts my hit rate enormously. Especially last year, when I mentioned Rude Lesbian Nurses. Oops, I did it again."

    I think some people may be a wee bit disappointed when their Google search brings them here(wink).

    "And I do apologise about what you have to do to enter. I’d have gone for ‘Simon is great’. "
    A little ego-stroking is a good thing though... I hope you pay Simon well:)

    Thanks for the giggles after a very hectic pre-holiday weekend.


  • thewritehand Says:

    I, too, am mourning the demise of Studio 60. It's the only programme currently airing that qualifies as "must see TV" for me.

    Thanks for the heads-up on the Gail Simone title - it's one that has passed me by, but I'll definitely pick up a copy now.

    Have a great Christmas. Hell - have a great all-year-round!

    Lee (Harris)

  • RachelC Says:

    Love Studio 60, it was my must see of last year. Hate that it was cencelled but US networks never seem to give shows a chance to shine, it has to be there right out the gate and get audiences or they just replace you with a reality show.

    I'm looking forward to the story - it'll be my first permanent day back in the UK after a few years away so time to open the papers and see what they have done to them

  • Paul Oldroyd Says:

    Couldn't agree more about Studio 60. Chris and I are currently saving up the 3-part "K&R" to luxuriate in over Christmas, and after that there's only one episode left ....

  • Garpu the Fork Says:

    Studio 60 was interesting...seemed like all the shows with good writing that year got canceled.

  • Graeme Says:

    I watched Studio 60 to the bitter end and I loved it...and yet looking back on it I found I couldn't enthuse about it the same way you do.

    I agree that Danny Tripp's foray into stalkerness is creepy because it has the random chaoticness of believability and reality (ditto his assertion in the final episode that Jordan's baby was not his stepson but his son), but it was still awfully uncomfortable to watch.

    For me, Studio 60 was wildly inconsistent-- the pilot is brilliant, but after about the fourth or so episode it really doesn't find its feet and have a similarly spectacular episode until the Christmas episode and then there would be a few flashes of brilliance ("The Friday Night Slaughter", "K & R (1 and 2)" but most would veer wildly from awfulness to brilliance, often in the same episode. I think it was less a high wire act (though I agree with your assessment of the process) and more like watching a demolition derby: you can't stop watching the car get smashed into pieces and you also appreciate the brilliance of the driver who can survive that race as well.

    I think you're generous in your assessment that it's The West Wing about writing-- I felt the main problem was it didn't know what it wanted to be. It moved between workplace comedy like SportsNight to high-minded idealism of the West Wing to the romance of The American President, trying to settle on something and never quite figuring it out.

    I do agree with you that the television landscape is poorer without it. I think it should have had another year to see if it could find its feet. But for me, it's a brave experiment rather than an unqualified success: the fact is, I still haven't bought it on DVD while I have watched countless West Wing episodes during the time it's been available.

    Out of curiosity Paul, have you looked at 30 Rock-- I think, in the grand tradition of Frasier, it's the best British comedy on American Television. Plus they have some good natured jabs at Studio 60 to boot!

  • Rob Says:

    I've yet to cotton-on to Studio 60, having only so far seen those "difficult" first few episodes. But I like how you sum up Sorkin's writing. Everything - from "A Few Good Men" and "The American President", through TWW, and now this - has that air-punching joie de vivre that carries me beyond "I wish I'd written that", into a state that feels more like I did write it, in the future, and have just sent it it back in time to brighten up my past life.

  • SK Says:

    My main problem with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is that by now, we can (well, I can) see the patterns in Sorkin's plots and dialogue -- and those patterns are starting to detract from the content. When two characters have a conversation that we can predict the course of from the first two lines, because we've seen a thousand similar ones on The West Wing and Sports Night (and even in The American President and A Few Good Men) and, crucially, the content that's within the pattern is no longer good enough, as it was on those earlier shows, to distract attention from the pattern itself, it's time to take a break.

    You know the kind of thing -- a character will refer to something using a slightly-generic term, and another character will correct them to something more specific over the course of a half-dozen lines that are probabaly a macro on Sorkin's keyboard ('captured Soldiers' 'Airmen' 'What? 'They're not soldiers, they're airmen').

    Or a character will have to have something explained to him (the meaning of the term 'K&R', say) and then it will turn out that every other character, no matter how unlikely, already knows what it means.

    Sorkin has about a dozen of these pre-fab 'dialogue templates' that he re-uses again and again and it's really starting to grate.

    The content is still occasionally amusing enoguh to raise a smile, which is why I'm still watching, but to be honest, I'm blad it's cancelled.

    (Where it really lost me was the John Goodman two-parter, where not just the dialogue but the entire structure of the episodes were lifted whole from particular episodes of the first season of The West Wing (specifically the one where the supreme court nominee ends up in jail)).

    Oh, and a new Doctor Who roleplaying game? In what way was Time Lord not sufficient? They could even have republished it with the sleepy-eye logo for the hard of attention span.

    How can you not love it when Nyssa beats a difference of four to understand the nature of the universe?

  • Steve Says:

    I'm just going to say: Totally with you on Studio 60.

    It's funny really, I know what's "wrong" with it, but I still love it.

    It was no doubt cancelled because it was too close to the bone for the network.

    (Though admittedly the scenes involving a show being short by a couple of minutes because of using the wrong page format only made sense because I'd found out about the US half-hour comedy format the week before. Lucky me.)

  • faldor Says:

    I also love Studio 60, Sorkin is probably my favourite writer who's name isnt Whedon.

    and speaking of degres of seperation, Sarah Paulson was the scientist hologram lady in Serenity.

  • aegisprime Says:

    Cool! Thanks for the RPG plug!!

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I don't pay him well enough, Feather. Loads of interesting points of view about Sorkin there, what an intelligent and analytical bunch you are. I haven't seen 30 Rock, I must. I'd bet on Nyssa to roll that four. And you're welcome!

  • Ashiel Says:

    glad that you like studio 60. i love aaron's writing, i'm just waiting charlie wilson's war to come out. anyways, there's always the dvds to rewatch.

    looking forward to your new script on doctor who s4 next year.

  • Tristram_ZX81 Says:

    I'm glad to read a big up for Overpowered. I'm currently traveling round Australia with a 1.5GB MP3 player, which means I keep having to delete and add new music to keep my music listening fresh. I'm pleased to say that Roisin Murphy's new album is surviving the repeated culls! She's unexpectedly lasted longer on there than even Radiohead's fantastic new album. I loved her last one too, but it's amazing how much more focused and professional the follow up is. Movie Star, Overpowered and the green friendly Dear Miami all deserve to be huge hits. (And who would've thought the year's best pop dance album would contain references to primordial soup, oxy-toxins and chromosomes? It's the New Scientist for electro pop fans!)

    PS If you get a chance to see her live, do. I saw her at Glastonbury 2005 and despite some sound problems she seemed delighted to be there and was the highlight of the weekend.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Sorry that I'm not on Season Four, Ashiel. Tristram, I'd love to see her live, and I'm pleased to note that the editors of ITunes today named Overpowered as their Album of the Year!