Greeted by lukewarm reviews, The Wheel of Time (Amazon Prime) has several barriers to overcome, not the least of which is that even people like me, who have more than a passing familiarity with the genre, have never heard of it. Am I so unusual? It seemed inevitable that reviewers in the mainstream would be a bit cool about it. They’re going to immediately reach for Game of Thrones comparisons, and they’ll already have experienced the lacklustre output of fantasy and cod fantasy in the wake of GoT. Sit down, Vikings. Most of the lustre was scrubbed away from GoT in its final season, and the best that has come along since has been the bonkers Britannia, and even that is very much an acquired taste.
This all goes back to William Goldman’s mantra about Hollywood: nobody knows. Nobody really knows why GoT was such a success. Sure, good story, powerful characters, great actors, money thrown at the screen, all that. But still, there have been plenty of shows with those elements that didn’t quite take off, lots of them genre shows. I’ve been a big fan of a lot of them. And even the genre shows that did garner good reviews and a following tended to under deliver in later seasons. And there have been excellent shows that have had five good years and yet: I’ve never met anyone who watched them. Consider the following.
Travelers (Netflix). Superb show. Cancelled after three seasons. Never met anyone who watched it.
Magicians (Amazon Prime). Fucking excellent show. Five seasons of it, and I’m having to force a friend to watch it by threatening the safety of her children.
Stranger Things (Netflix). Yes, it was quite a good first season. But after that? Bof.
Good Omens? American Gods? The Watch? Bof, bof, bof.
If you held a gun to my head, I might suggest that much of the success of Game of Thrones was owed to Emilia Clarke, whose frequent nude scenes in Season 1 made it both controversial and, well, you know. But watch it now, post #metoo, and if you’re not squirming, you’ve not been paying attention. And, well, read the room, casting director: you have to go quite a long way down the cast list before you get to Nathalie Emmanuel and Jacob Anderson.
So the problem with the fantasy genre in particular is that it tends towards the multi-volume epic. We all know about Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. I’ve mentioned in the past my fondness for Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series. I’ve also read series by Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, Tad Williams, and N K Jemeson — and that short listing barely scratches the surface.
So, yeah, if you said the name Robert Jordan to me, I’d have acknowledged that I’ve seen the name, but I’ve never picked up any of the books, and couldn’t name a title or the series.
Which brings us back to The Wheel of Time, which already looks to me like a better investment than the Lord of the Rings But Only the Bits Approved by the Estate deal. If they’d come to me, I might have suggested one of the above, but that doesn’t mean I think they’ve made a bad choice with the late Robert Jordan’s books. At least they know there’s an ending! As to the premise, it all centres around a character called Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) a magician who is looking for the reincarnation of a figure called The Dragon, who supposedly has the power to save the world or destroy it. And, I get it, to non-genre fans this can sound like it might be a bit silly. So did Game of Thrones. So did Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Because the strength of these narratives isn’t about the magic and the dragons. It’s about the storytelling and the world building. And to anyone who sneers, I say, just look at the cast.
Just a look at it tells you how far we’ve come. For a start, it’s not all bloody men, so it’s not one of those contrived situations where half the population are missing. But the main thing about the cast is that it is colourful and diverse and – thank goodness – the producers haven’t decided that all the characters must be white because it wouldn’t be ‘realistic’ to have people of colour.
I watched the first three episodes (five more to come in this season), and I have to say it was very watchable. There were some distractingly bad fake beards (or, if they were real, distractingly bad real beards). There were some scary monsters, some extended action scenes, a bit of magic, some gruesome cruelty. Quite a lot of exposition, inevitably. Someone coughs up a bat. But no gratuitous nudity cynically calculated to garner headlines. Actually, it’s all right. And Amazon/Sony have done better with this than Apple did with Foundation, so there’s that. Definitely the kind of thing you might like if you like this kind of thing — and a lot of people do.
I have a few additional thoughts on Game of Thrones and its ending.
I think it was good. It was probably really good, but it will be hard to tell that until all the poison has left the system.
By poison, of course, I mean all the commentary and opinions from the never-satisfied armchair and other critics. We’ve spoken in the past about the modern phenomenon of the social media pile-on, the pitchfork wielding mob that resembles nothing so much as Orwell’s Two Minute Hate from Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Honestly, who would be a creator these days? I once posted a video to YouTube of me making pizza in a not-very-good back garden pizza oven (the Uuni), and some complete stranger took time out of their doubtless busy day to post a negative comment about my pizza dough. On a video that had been seen by about five people, including the commenter.
I’m perfectly at ease with my own shouting into the void. If this was a blog that attracted, god forbid, regular comments from strangers, I’d restrict them even more than I do now. As it is, I allow comments on this blog for 14 days on each post, and then turn them off. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from people. It’s that I generally don’t, and if I do it’s someone I kinda know. The rest are either spam, or they’re from that guy, in which case I don’t approve them.
I’m not saying don’t post. I’m not saying don’t comment. I’m just wondering why you would bother to try to ruin someone’s day like that. Someone you don’t know, will never know, will never meet, will never (certainly not now) befriend online in any way whatsoever. It’s the conundrum of our times, a question that now goes back 30 years and more: what, exactly, do you get out of being that guy?
(And, really: don’t comment. Unless you have a pre-existing and cordial relationship, and certainly if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That may sound anodyne, but it’s the golden fucking rule, isn’t it?)
They’ve had many names, these people. Trolls. At a basic level, someone who deliberately sets out to start an online argument is a troll. Most women with social media accounts are also familiar with the Reply Guy, the well, actually guy, the mainsplainer, the drooling flaccid cock of online harassment and attention seeking.
What’s the problem, really? Partly, its an over-developed sense of entitlement, of ownership, and a complete lack of self-awareness. As I titled the book of this blog’s archives: Nobody cares what you think.
I mean. If you read a review of something, a film say, in a mainstream newspaper, and it’s a film you’re looking forward to, a film you think you might love, and the review is negative: do you care? Will it stop you going to see it? Will you feel moved to post a comment below the line, directed at the reviewer, explaining why they’re wrong?
Take Bruce Springsteen. He’s releasing a new record this summer. I’ll probably buy it. I probably will like two or three songs on it, which is the usual rate. And some geezer in the Guardian will review it and give it three or four stars. And whether I agree or disagree, nobody will care what I think. And nobody really cares what the geezer in the Guardian thinks. He could give it two stars, hoping to provoke some comments below the line. That is what the Guardian does. They do it with Apple news and reviews. They do it with Game of Thrones. They generate clicks and hits and ad loads, and that’s how modern newspapers circle the drain.
When I was 18, Springsteen released The River, which (I’m about to controversially suggest) was his last unequivocally great album. And journalist Julie Burchill, writing then for the New Musical Express, wrote a sarcastic and biting review of it, highlighting the repetitively similar girls’ names (Julie, Mary, Wendy etc.), and sneering at all the songs about cars and trucks. It was less a review of The River and more of a not-buying-it critique of the Springsteen act and mythos. It upset me a lot at the time. I mean, I hated everything Julie Burchill wrote, but this hatchet job felt unnecessary and wide of the mark.
Springsteen has since admitted that he wrote a lot of those songs about cars and leaving town whilst not being able to drive himself, and as someone who still lives within spitting distance of his home town. So, in a way, Burchill was probably picking up on something she felt was inauthentic. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. The point was, I was wrong to care. It didn’t affect my enjoyment of the record, and 39 years later, it still doesn’t. She might have been right, she might have been wrong, but the point then was that was exactly the kind of thing the NME did: deliberately give an album to someone who would hate it, and then sit back with the popcorn, knowing that their Letters page the following week would be full of Springsteen defenders.
These days, we call it trolling.
And people still argue about authenticity in music, and I suppose they always will. Personally, I stopped caring about that years ago, have reached the higher state of consciousness that means I’ve accepted the existence of the fictional character called Bob Dylan.
Anyway, Game of Thrones. It was good. I had an experience in the car today that meant I couldn’t listen to music or podcasts as I drove. Which is fatal, because the last thing I want to to when I’m driving long distances is focus on the distances. There’s a danger, when I’m driving through the night and everyone’s asleep that I start obsessing about the kilometre markers in the centre of French motorways, which count off every one hundred meters, so you can precisely locate yourself in an emergency. Literally: kilometer 288, kilometre 288.1, kilometre 288.2, etc.
And if you’re me and you start looking at those markers, you enter a fugue state in which time passes but you never get any closer to where you’re going, like something out of a dream. So I had to do something to occupy my brain in the absence of podcasts and songs, and for some reason I imagined myself in a situation where I was explaining the plot of Game of Thrones to my best friend.
It started something like this:
There’s this fictional world, made up of continents, countries, and seas. And at some point in the past there was a great civilisation, which has now fallen. All that remains of this lost civilisation are a few ruins, book fragments, and some remaining weapons: swords and blades made with some kind of amazing metallurgy that creates a special steel sharper and harder than any other steel. But nobody knows or remembers how it was done. So there are these swords, and these knives, leftovers from a vanished civilisation, and nobody knows how to make new ones. Anyway, that’s all background. You don’t know that at first, it’s just part of the world-building, the history of this place, which we first encounter long after this civilisation fell. And what remains is a rough and brutal mediaeval world. In particular, we’re in Westeros, a continent of seven kingdoms, which have been in an uneasy peace since a few years before the story begins. But again, we don’t know all this. When we first enter this world, it’s beyond the borders of Westeros, in the far North, where we see a patrol out in the bleak and cold country which lies North of this great wall of ice. What? Oh yes, there’s this amazing wall of ice which was built by the denizens of the lost civilisation to keep out some kind of threat, but again, nobody really knows what the threat is. Anyway, there’s this organisation called the Night Watch, and they man the Wall, and defend Westeros from this unknown threat, which they think is something to do with the people who live North of the Wall, who call themselves the Free Folk, but who are pejoratively called Wildlings. The Free Folk just want to live away from the mediaeval feudal system that exists South of the Wall. Anyway, the Night Watch isn’t what you’d call a force of highly professional trained fighting men. They’re people who have been sent there as punishment, as an alternative to a death penalty. Most of them. There are a few more decent types, who have self-exiled, but most of the Night Watch are murderers and cowards and thieves. Anyway, they’re out on patrol, and they come across something completely horrific…
And that’s just the background and introduction to the first five minutes of the first episode of Game of Thrones. The first five minutes of over four thousand minutes. It has been an extraordinary achievement in world building and television making, a global phenomenon of incredible storytelling, and visceral, action-packed, character-led entertainment. And it just ended in a way that is completely in keeping with the way it begins.
And the only thing that spoiled it?
The inter fucking net. And that guy. People who wanted to see messages tied to raven’s feet and people packing their bags in the last episode because otherwise it looks like aplot hole, but only if you think a plot should include all the boring bits as well as the exciting bits (and exciting tits and butts, it has to be said).
So in years to come, I hope to watch again without the madness of the social commentary that became, in the end, an industry in its own right. And they saw the end coming and lost their fucking shit because all their parasitical recaps and blogs and podcasts would be over. Luckily, my own blog, this one, has never just been about one thing, so I carry on regardless.
So, Game of Thrones, then. Opinions are like arseholes etc.
The internet is both the best and worst thing to happen to television. I remember years ago rabidly reading the TV.com and similar recaps of shows like Buffy, and even being willing to spoil the show for myself by reading ahead of where I was in my viewing. There are an awful lot of words written on the internet about television. Here are mine.
There are also an awful lot of podcasts about television: people who have created a kind of living for themselves by recording their Skype calls to their similarly obsessed friends and posting them online. I listen to a lot of them, and I’m always glad to be a listener and not a participant because I think I would find it tiresome to be obliged to come up with an opinion, each week, to order.
Sometimes you just don’t care.
Which is why the internet is also the worst thing to happen to television because people who feel obliged to have opinions are impossible to please. And people who regularly write and talk about TV will feel obliged, however great the show, to adopt a skeptical tone, to become hypercritical, to think they know better. And, opinions being cheap, everyone starts to weigh in. I’ve often wondered about those Guardian threads with thousands of comments. Shouting down a hole.
There has been some interesting stuff out there this week about the outrage being expressed. First of all, outrage: it’s a TV show. Second of all, some people have succinctly explained how the early seasons, based on GRRM’s published books, were character-based, because GRRM writes about characters; whereas the last couple of seasons have been plot-based, because show runners who need to end a show will have beats to hit and people to see. So time has accelerated, and everything has been happening (too) fast (for some).
I’m still enjoying it. I feel like we’re getting pay-offs for plots started in episode one of season one, and if it comes as a shock, you’re probably not paying attention. And if a character you’ve been rooting for ‘suddenly’ turns into a murderous tyrant, maybe you were rooting for the wrong person. It’s possible to be wrong. You know, those people in Kings Landing probably voted for Trump and deserved everything they got.
The books have stopped coming out maybe because the meandering multi-threaded character-driven storylines are too hard to pull together. Maybe it takes a writers’ room to ruthlessly prune the characters and sub-plots down to the essentials. And it’s a shame, but it turns out that the first five seasons of the show were probably the first half of a ten-season show, and we’re only getting seven (with the last season split, as with Mad Men and Breaking Bad before it). Which means that whole sections of the plot and characters from the novels that were in the show for the first five seasons have been jettisoned.
If you could go back in time and kind of excise the Iron Islanders and the Sand Snakes, there’d have been more space for organic acceleration. But it is what it is.
One of the other problems created by the internet is fandom. The fan community. And when showrunners pay too much attention to fans (so-called fan service), you get a lot of dissatisfaction being expressed because fanatics are impossible to please, so why bother? So, for example, the small Mormont girl is supposed to be in one scene, but then (fan service) gets more screen time and then (fan service) kills a giant and then all the fans moan that the episode was too hard to see, meh meh meh.
Meanwhile, HBO’s new show, Chernobyl got mixed reviews but is definitely worth a watch. I find it so interesting that the Challenger and the Chernobyl disasters happened within a few short months, and in many ways have similar elements. Both are concerned with narrative. On the one hand, the Challenger disaster happened because the engineers had the wrong narrative about cold weather launches. Essentially, they failed to realise that all of the O-ring problems they’d been having had been during cold weather, and instead thought the O-ring issues were kind of random. And at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, the belief that, because something hadn’t ever happened before, it couldn’t have happened was the narrative that delayed decisive action for too many hours. Furthermore, because they couldn’t tell a story about how the reactor core had exploded, they weren’t believed when they said (correctly) that the core had exploded. When people get stuck in a narrative, they get well and truly stuck.
So, to circle back to the Game of Thrones, a lot of people are stuck in a narrative about it that is being challenged by the last few episodes. They thought it was going to end a certain way, I suppose? But they were wrong.
Apple held an event last week in order to announce a bunch of services; notably, a TV service and an Apple-branded credit card, backed by Goldman Sachs — the bank who brought you 2008 Crash: The Fuckening. While watching the cringeworthy presentation of Apple’s TV offering, and as we all gear up for the forthcoming final season of Game of Thrones, it occurred to me that our era of Peak TV might have peaked. A bit.
Because what comes next? None of the attempts to imitate GoT have caught on: TheVikings, and that silly Britannia thing, for example, were pale shadows of the richly textured GoT. But It’s hard to see that HBO have got anything else in the pipeline. Westworld had a stunning first season, but stuttered in S2 and seemed to be running out of ideas (the difference, perhaps, between being based on a book series and being based on a single Michael Crichton screenplay).
Looking elsewhere, Amazon’s American Gods was interesting, but again: we’re talking about a standalone novel adaptation vs. a hugely detailed book series. If you’re stretching things out rather than the opposite, then it all starts to get a bit… stretchy.
Everything else that’s out there at the moment is, at best all right, and at worst appears to fall into the how did this get made? category. I’ve expressed my love of Amazon’s Bosch series before, but I know I’m in a niche, and it’s not a show that even gets consideration on Tim Goodman’s latest musings about great cop shows. Mr Goodman’s expressed desire is for a new great cop show to come along, and that is a real question isn’t it? Southland was superb but got no traction. And The Wire was a long time ago.
“A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season.
Looking at Apple’s presentation last week, they were making a lot about a little. Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories might have some interesting episodes, but it’s in the nature of anthology shows that it isn’t going to build up to anything. Apple’s morning TV drama looked like it might want to be The Newsroom, but the Newsroom, while I personally liked it, didn’t set the world on fire, and we didn’t get much of a taste of Apple’s thing to know any different. And the other stuff looked okay, but I’m not sure it would entice me to pay a subscription.
Mostly, I got two impressions. First, that all of these people had been lured by a lot of money, that Apple had been bounced by their desperation to grow their own content into paying too much for too little. I mean, if you look at the best recent shows on television, most of them weren’t star vehicles. GoT has made stars; the main players in The Americans were respectable actors, but not movie stars; and Counterpart had JK Simmons, who is brilliant, but he’s not a bums-on-seats kind of actor. Television doesn’t really work like that, does it? You don’t really tune in for the stars. It’s notable that ER first made a star of George Clooney, and then survived his departure. NYPD Blue made a star of David Caruso, and then thrived when he left (he didn’t). And, news just in, The Good Fight might be even better than The Good Wife, now the titular actor has departed. The Closer was marvellous, but then Major Crimes was just as good.
In short, Apple are backing the wrong kind of horse. The second thing that occurred to me during their presentation was that they were very focused on the United States. Sure, it’s a big market. But Amazon and Netflix are global. Probably the smartest thing Netflix does is content in a wide variety of original languages. Apple are offering us an American TV show about an American TV show. I mean, how far up their own arse do they want to get? And another kind of anthology show telling the stories of immigrants to the USA. I know it’s all part of the political moment, but still: there was too much navel gazing in their launch. The “stories” they want to tell are all US-centric it seems.
In wider television terms, I’m trying to think of anything I’m kind of looking forward to coming back, in the same way I’m looking forward to GoT, and I’m struggling. The Americans is over. Travelers wrapped up. Starz has cancelled Counterpart. Two seasons of that means it will never achieve true greatness. If I’m honest, the only reason I’m looking forward to Game of Thrones is because I’ve invested so much time in it already. Quite a lot of the most recent season was a bit silly. Where is the next great show that enters the cultural conversation going to come from? HBO might be absorbed into Warner, might never be the same again. And, like Netflix, their track record has not been that great lately. More hits than misses, etc., which has always been true of television.
But there are special circumstances in the Peak TV era. Now there are so many showsand so many services, the audience is thoroughly dispersed. The BBC might still get people talking about The Bodyguard and Line of Duty, but there are always a number of caveats. First of all, they’re not as good as they think they are. The Bodyguard started strong and became preposterous quite quickly. Line of Duty has pulled some bold strokes but have we now seen all its tricks? Those long, tense interview scenes are great: but how many variations on that can you spin? Just how many of that small team can turn out to be villains? And: short series, short orders, so cannot hope to obtain the greatness of even a modern season of 10-13 episodes.
Amazon’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings nonsense seems doomed to fail. Or at least I hope it does. Haven’t we had enough of that particular franchise? I suppose you might be appealing to the superfans, but that’s not a growth audience, and it’s a tired old world, the hobbits and the rings.
I can think of a few properties that, if adapted, would get me firing up the credit card instantly. But I’d be truly amazed to see any of them happen. There are so many scripted series now, and the talent pool as well as the audience is very diluted. Watching the Apple event last week, I couldn’t help but note how many of the A-listers were veterans. It reminded me of nothing so much as Major League Soccer. A haven for players on the edge of retirement, who are lured by big money to play one more season. Here: come see all our faded stars who are past their peak. Just like peak TV, perhaps.
There can’t be many shows in the history of television that inspire you to do actual homework before the new season starts, but here we are. This is a show which now runs to sixty-something hours and which has had at least 70 named characters. What we used to think of as great television: X Files, Buffy, NYPD Blue—doesn’t even come close to being in the same league as far as complexity goes.. The multi-threaded narrative is coming towards its end, but I couldn’t possibly predict how.
The Still Watching podcast from Vanity Fair is recapping 15 key episodes, and as well as listening to that, I’ve decided to work my way through this list from Time Magazine. It’s a useful list of 20 episodes, covering the main story beats and taking in many of the most memorable moments.
It’s an odd way to watch, missing out huge chunks. One minute Cersei is sitting on the iron throne calling the shots, and the next minute she’s in a prison cell slurping water off the floor. But it is also a fairly satisfying experience, fast-forwarding through some of the longeurs and skipping out the Iron Islands and other narrative dead ends.
Anyway, it’s Sunday night and there’s school tomorrow, and I’m cramming.
Contains spoilers for Britannia: the whole series.
Britannia, a co-production between Sky in the UK and Amazon for the rest of the world, dropped onto NowTV at the end of last week, and I’ve, um, watched the whole lot.
Which must mean it’s good, right? Because in the Platinum Age, nobody needs to sit through mediocre TV. So, yes, spoilers: it’s watchable, enjoyable, sometimes too gruesome, but interesting enough to sustain my interest over its run.
Inevitably, even if it wasn’t trying to be, it’s going to be unfavourably compared to Game of Thrones, which is the last half decade’s flagship show, the one to which all others must aspire. Game of Thrones is big budget, epic, painted on a vast canvas, with a huge cast of characters and a multitude of storylines. So can Sky money and Amazon money compete? Not really. Let’s get that over with: Britannia is faster-paced, not afraid to skip “four moons” to get to the point, and in terms of locations seems to offer a limited range, with some characters seemingly sitting around in tents, others running around in the same woods, and a few others hanging around in some unlikely looking gorges. And, oh, Stonehenge, or something very like it. Filmed in the Czech Republic and Wales, it manages to look quite expensive, but without anywhere near the expansive geography and world-building of Game of Thrones, and without giving you a sense of where places were in relation to each other, or how long it might take to travel between them. And no dragons.
The Romans are in Britain. Led by David Morrissey, who plays Aulus Plautius who historically did lead the (second) Roman invasion in 43 CE, and who became Britain’s first governor. He faces the divided tribes of Britain, led by King Pellanor of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and hate-filled Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia of the Regni. The Cantii were historically based in Kent (hence Canterbury, I guess), while the Regni were next door in Sussex. Alongside these two warring monarchs are the druids, led by mystic in makeup Mackenzie Crook, who plays Veran. Presumably we’re supposed to believe the druids are all over the place, though if it is meant to be Stonehenge, then that’s Wiltshire, and the druids’ last stand against the Romans was in Anglesey.
So that’s the historical geography, westward from Kent to Wales, which is after all the route of Watling Street: all the way from Canterbury to Bangor. But this isn’t really a history, nor meant to be enjoyed as a historically accurate drama. Instead, it contains mystics and magic, prophecies and hallucinogenic visions; and at least one character who straddles the land of the living and the dead. The dialogue is salty, with enough modern idiom to make it clear that the showrunners (the Butterworths et al) don’t give a shit about accuracy. You just don’t get much of a sense that these people are spread all over Britain. It sometimes feels as if the Romans set up camp on the Medway and that was it.
It all begins with an interrupted naming ceremony, as a tweenage girl, Cait, is about to choose her adult name. She’s already broken a taboo by speaking to her badass sister, and then the Romans arrive, and brutally kill or enslave almost everybody in the village. Cait’s captured father is blinded by one of the Romans, which leads all and sundry to freak out when they hear of a prophecy about a blind man and his small daughter. Cait herself knocks around in various places, but usually ends up teaming up, like Arya Stark, with a grumpy hypno-mystic, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who variously tries to drop her, kill her, and protect her.
Meanwhile, Pellanor (who’s name is lifted from the Arthurian legends) is in conflict about how to deal with the Romans with his two kids, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Phelan, and Kelly Reilly as Kerra – who is supposed to have some Roman blood. There are complicated marriages, jealousies, spies, deserters, sieges, and gruesome, gruesome death ceremonies, with way too much gory detail.
Rhind-Tutt doesn’t have much to do at first except act as go-between for his sister and father, but it’s when he goes off on his own quest with captive tatooed bride Ania that he comes into his own, producing an entertaining turn, full of sardonic invective reminiscent of The Hound in Game of Thrones.
There is a lot of pointless running around in the woods, and a great deal of splashing around in chilly-looking water, and it does sag a little in the middle of its nine episodes, but the final three are great, and the ending of the siege in the season finale is spectacular. What the show needed was a tenth episode, Thrones-style, to set people up for what comes next, but instead a little of that was tacked onto the end. As I said, it doesn’t have the pacing quite right, but it is bonkers enough to win my approval.
All the way through the last three volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire (which I previously wrote about here), I was waiting, hoping, anticipating the moment when the narrative would surge (or at least drift slightly) ahead of the TV series. Now, I know that the series is becoming ever more divergent from the print edition, but that seems to be mainly through combining characters, excising subplots and otherwise streamlining the bloat of the books. Both are surely heading more or less to the same conclusion.
If, that is, there is a conclusion.
It’s by no means clear that there’s going to be. It’s pointless, it seems to me, to read these books for the plot. There is no central plot line. The story is rhizomatic: it’s all subplots. As a reader, you might find yourself favouring some of the subplots over others. Do you care about Dany and her dragons? Good luck with that. Not featured in book 4, they’re big in book 5 (both parts of), but not very much happens until (I made a note) page 190 of the final volume. And even that comes to not very much.
Nobody cares much for Stanis, but he’s the only one moving pieces on the board for the most part. And you’d think that after his arrival at the wall at the end of the 3rd book, stuff might happen. But not really.
So much of ASOIAF takes place offstage, in fact. People are sent off places and then we don’t hear much or anything about them for hundreds of pages. It’s almost as if the whole project was designed to confound the expectations of the reader-for-the-plot. What we’re left with instead is a level of excruciating detail about minutiae, whether in the form of food (heron stuffed with figs gave me pause) or dreadful body odour or – worse – the bloody flux that afflicts refugees and armies.
Is this hyperreality? Is it a lesson in how mediaeval wars were fought – not by armies of skilled fighters but by logistics and blind luck? The winning side being the one with the fewest dead horses, or the least weakened army.
But another unfortunate effect of GRRM’s dwelling on detail is his concern with rape and sexual abuse and torture. I found scenes featuring Theon/Reek too much to bear (skip skip skip) and despair of any woman not being raped or threatened with rape or simply shaved all over and paraded naked through the streets (complete with hyper-detailed description of piss and shit – or night soil, as the author insists on calling it.
As for the scenes featuring Brienne, my goodness, but the level of graphic detail is dismaying. And you can’t help thinking the author takes too much pleasure in inflicting suffering – especially on women.
What if you read avidly about Jon Snow? Well, he does quite a lot in the last three volumes. But what he is doing mainly concerns moving people around and making deals, holding meetings and overruling those who disagree with him.
It’s never really clear – until it is – whether anyone is dead or not. People are reported dead (yes, it’s the fog of war), but then turn up in disguise, or using another name. A number of people turn up incognito – except we’ve never met them before, so you wonder why. These are often the characters who have been cut for TV, which is to the good. Whole character arcs start in the middle of nowhere and lead to failure/death and you can quite see why they’re just not needed to drive the plot forward. Other people die or are reported dead or just disappear for ages and have graphically detailed bowel problems.
Rape, maim, torture, bloody flux, poison, behead, dismember: these are the rhythms of life and death in ASOIAF. Somewhere within is a lean, gritty fantasy trilogy featuring a much smaller cast of characters and a radically streamlined plot about a winter plague of frozen zombies and an exiled girl queen learning to fly dragons.
But with all these subplots and this army of characters, it’s lost. And it’s no wonder GRRM struggles for so long to write the books. There are no threads to hold onto and too many Greyjoys than is strictly necessary.
One of the odd side effects about the extremely high staff turnover at my current employer is that stuff gets left lying around by people who are, ahem, no longer with us. One such stuff was a complete collection of George R R Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire. This obscure book has been, I believe, adapted unsuccessfully for television. You may find DVD copies at your next car boot sale, under its simplified title Game of Thrones.
Enough of that irony. So some person left all these books behind and I enquired as to their ownership. Nobody seemed to know anything, so I took them. This has been a great help in my sleeping better by not reading off screens project. So much so that the iPad has been abandoned by the whole family, and I’m now paying for a data contract that has literally seen zero use in about six months. Ha ha!
I’d read the first book, so started in on the second and then read the third, which is in two volumes, and now I’m on the fourth. It’s an epic struggle against indifference, let me tell you. The ruthless paring represented by the television adaptation has made a dirge into a 3-minute pop song.
I don’t hate these books, but I feel about them as I do about most fantasy. I’m reading for the plot, which needs to move faster. You might think you would read for character, but actually there are so many of them, and you spend so little time with each one that there’s very little character development. The actors in the TV show do a brilliant job of bringing these rather flat characters to life.
I’ve got a so-so relationship with fantasy. I’m a big fan of hard science fiction: so much so, that I flat rejected St*r W*rs on the basis of its fantasy elements and disdain much of what passes for SF in the movies. I have read Lord of the Rings multiple times, but every time I did so I skipped huge, boring chunks of it – especially the back story bits. As to the film adaptations, I’ve always said it should have been a TV series, and I think the success of Game of Thrones bears that out. Once the world-building becomes visual, the actual story can take over.
Years ago, I read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series – but both of these had a basis in science fiction. My favourite straight fantasy has to have been Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series, but I have to admit that it went on too long, with too many books (15 of them), and I grew tired of it long before the end. I went from a lover of the books who read the early ones again and again to someone who bought the final few out of obligation and ploughed through them joylessly. Loved the first five, was okay with the next five, but really didn’t enjoy the final five. It felt a bit like the final two seasons of The X Files.
A Song of Ice and Fire is odd. It seems like the prose has been passed through some kind of processor that has removed all sense of authorial voice from it. There are multiple points of view, but you don’t really sense that there’s a different person for each one. It all strikes me as being a bit robotic. I cannot fault it for technical accuracy or style. It doesn’t feel hateful, like reading something by David Eddings or whoever. It just feels bland.
Which may be a good thing, given the extreme length. Considering their success, they don’t half break the show-me-don’t-tell-me rule. So much of the action seems to be taking place either in the distant past or elsewhere. Sure, there’s a deliberate muddling of stories and garbled hearsay element, so you’re never really sure if this person is really dead, or has really done what they’re reported to have done. But there’s also an element that reminds me of Tolkein’s habit of telling you long, long stories about long dead people in order to explain why some sword or other was broken. The begats, in biblical terms.
I’m interested in the world, in why its seasons are so long, in why they’ve never developed industry – or have forgotten technologies they used to have. What is it with a thousands-year-old civilisation that has forgotten how to make decent swords and so much else? The explanation could be science fictiony, which appeals to me. I mean, it could be that the long winters are so destructive and leave so many dead that they forget how to do things – or can never build their civilisation beyond the pony stage.
But if explanations for all these things are forthcoming, they’re so many thousands of words ahead of me that I begin to despair. I’ve yet to tackle the fifth book (in two volumes), and might give this a rest for a while when I get to the end of the fourth. I’ve got Robert Charles Wilson’s new one on the way, so I think I’ll read that.
To give you an idea of how slow things are. I’ve been thinking the current Season 5 was treading water a bit, but as I started Book Four, I was thinking, oh, well, I’m more or less caught up with events on the TV series, so I’ll soon be ahead. I know the TV series is diverging at this point, but I’m halfway through the fourth book and events have still not progressed beyond the first couple of episodes of Season 5. That’s how slow it is.
I wasn’t sure about Game of Thrones when I first saw a few episodes on Pick TV (they showed the first three as a taster, before withdrawing it behind the Sky paywall). I’m not even going to try to defend the show’s nudity, though there is one way in which I get it (see below).
I confess that I’d been put off the whole fantasy genre by the disastrous Lord of the Rings films. I appreciate I’m probably in the minority when it comes to those extended exercises in CGI and silliness, but allow me to attempt to explain.
If a so-called “live action” film over-relies on CGI, I lose interest. It’s just a cartoon. I appreciate that CGI is everywhere, and this is an arbitrary category problem, but call me old-fashioned. I like the story to be told in the camera. Anyway, you might forgive (1) if not for
Over-long. Hey, maybe I might not have hated it so much if it had been a TV series. I quite enjoyed the radio version, back in 1981. At 11 hours 22 minutes for the three extended films, it adds up to about a season of Game of Thrones. Then again, much of the bulk of the book is taken up with lore and poetry and begats, and if you cut down to the bit you’d actually want to see, maybe it’s not even a season’s worth of plot.
Too many endings.
Overblown, over-budget. Like James Cameron, Peter Jackson throws money at every problem, but I don’t believe in his stories.
Anyway, Game of Thrones. There was the prejudice. Then there’s the fact that I prefer reading Sci Fiction to fantasy. I’ve enjoyed much of Katherine Kerr‘s output over the years, read a lot of Anne McCaffrey when younger, and love Tim Powers‘ take on urban fantasy. That was abut my limit.
I’d never read any George R R Martin, and though I’ve now got the first volume of this on my Kindle, I’ve barely dipped into it. If I’m honest, I’m just a bit jealous that when TV finally did something like this, it wasn’t one of my beloved books got adapted, but some other set of people’s beloved books. Then again, maybe I’m glad that I wasn’t a fan of the books, so I can just enjoy the TV series on its own merits and not sit complaining that they missed out the important bit.
And it has merits. There are too many characters, and it takes a long time for anything much to happen, and the gratuitous nudity is somewhat one-sided, but it’s delightfully uncompromising and true to itself. Where it wins as a fantasy is that it doesn’t feature elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc., and it cleverly, oh so cleverly, wears its fantasy very lightly for the whole of the first season. By Season 3, we’ve seen walking dead, dragons, sorcery and resurrection, but by then the audience has been sucked into the story by the human characters, and we’ve never been allowed to forget that these are sweaty, dirty, shitting, pissing, fucking and bleeding human characters.
As to all the fucking, I get it. In a genre that has been ill-served by television, it was essential to send a message that this wasn’t for kids. How do you do that? You could try to tell an adult story with compelling characters, brilliant plotting, and superb dialogue. Joss Whedon did that with Buffy, and still the BBC took one look at it and put it on at 6pm, opposite The Simpsons. They even edited some of the scarier bits, considered too much for the early evening family audience.
So you (the producers of the show) need to send a message, not necessarily to the audience, but to the suits who run TV production companies and channels and networks. You need to say, this genre isn’t just for kiddies. Just like cops, docs, and lawyers, adults like this stuff. Smart scripts, interesting plot lines and well-drawn characters are, historically, not enough to do this. So you need in-your-face blood, guts, swearing, dead babies, nude bodies, fucking, homosexuality, beheadings, and anything else you can think of in order to make the thick-as-shit pen pushers understand. Now they get it, I think.
You may have seen this advertised interminably on Pick TV, if, like me, you’ve been watching the re-runs of Futurama and/or Stargate Atlantis etc.
NowTV is Sky’s version of internet TV, offering a way of getting Sky content without a long-term contract or satellite dish or Sky+ box. The current introductory price for a NowTV Entertainment Month Pass is £4.99.
You can buy the pass and watch on a tablet or laptop, and you can also purchase (for just under a tenner) the NowTV Box, which is smaller, even, than the Apple TV box. It connects to an HDMI port on your TV, and your wireless network.
I’ve been wanting to sample Game of Thrones, among some other things. Pick have shown a few GoT episodes. I thought it looked all right, and at least had some interesting female characters. But I wasn’t interested enough to spend £55 on a Blu-Ray boxed set. Neither was I interested enough to pay £1.80 something per episode on Amazon’s streaming video service.
It occurred to me that with the current offer, NowTV is probably the cheapest way to watch GoT without committing yourself too much. For £35, I bought the box and a 6-month pass, which should give me plenty of time to plough through it. As others have pointed out, the box is a bargain, as it ships with an HDMI cable, which would cost you close to a tenner, or even more, if you were foolish enough to buy one at high street prices.
It arrived promptly, and was dead easy to set up. I must say, shipping the thing with the HDMI cable in the box takes a lot of hassle out of the situation. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain entering passwords and user names using the arrows on a remote control, but it was glitch free. Once up and running, it’s extremely efficient, getting to the Home screen and loading content much more quickly than any other internet content through my Sony TV and Blu-Ray.
Video quality may be an issue for some. I’ve read reviews that the live sport streams (paid for separately, a much more expensively) are a bit ropey. For me, 720p content is absolutely fine. You have to remember that most of the content being broadcast on Freeview is Standard Definition anyway. Most of the stuff I’ve got sitting on my shelves is SD (on DVD), and so 720p is already better. Anyway, if GoT was to be shown on Pick (or Five, if Sky/Discovery end up buying it), it would be shown in SD.
I’m inclined to only work with 720p on my own account, and I’ve always wondered why people are obsessed with 1080p, which only hogs more bandwidth and disc space than it really needs to. How clearly do you want to be able to see peoples’ chicken pox scars, anyway?
As to the service itself, be aware that only some Sky content is available from the beginning. Game of Thrones can be watched from the beginning of Season 1, but The Blacklist, which also interests me, perhaps because it’s still being broadcast, is only available on a Catch-up basis, which means, the most recent few episodes. I guess it depends whether Sky own the repeat rights, or something. With GoT, I would guess its availability is a sign that it won’t be available on a Freeview channel any time soon. Whereas The Blacklist? Maybe it will turn up on Four or Five at some point? Who knows. Anyway, I’ll watch what I can, and in six months I’ll decide whether to cancel the pass before paying for any more content.
(As well as Sky content, you can access iPlayer, 4oD, Demand Five, and other channels, including Vevo music videos.)
You have the option of buying passes for Movies and Sport, but (as indicated above), these cost more. I’ve got very little interest in either.