Sunday, August 30, 2009


Not far from us we are privileged to enjoy a miniature railway. This is no two-bit model railway with dodgy tracks and a rickety engine. This is the real thing. That is, real models based on real engines using real coal and running on real tracks with real signals. It is one of the most extraordinary and disturbing things we've seen.

Our boy doesn't think it is at all disturbing and is utterly mesmerised by it. I've tried to take him often during the summer and he's started to really relax and enjoy it. He looks hard at the train and says, 'T, t, t' with great vigor (meaning Thomas of Tank Engine fame). And when told we are going to visit the trains he dances about saying, 'Toot, toot'. It's safe to say that he has only the utmost appreciation for this service.

It is a very serious affair. It has real tickets and a ticket master, wearing a special hat clips your ticket before you ride

The engine driver carefully drives around the track, stopping or slowing at the appropriate signal and blowing his whistle the requisite number of times as instructed by the sign.

Some of the volunteers are older, probably doing this as a hobby in their retirement. But some are not old, and appear just as enthusiastic. In fact, everyone involved in this venture is not so much enthusiastic as earnest. And I think that is what is slightly disturbing for us.

This is a terrific thing to visit. Miniature trains, based off real engines with nicknames, being cared for and cajoled into giving their all for the Cutteslowe Park Miniature Railway.
We often frequent this park, which runs intermittently throughout the summer. And really appreciate the huge amount of work and expertise that goes into continuing to make this happen. But the attention to detail is slightly disconcerting. We were there once when a moment of tension happened, with an elderly engineer protested that the 'spare carriage' had been used. The conversation went like this:

(Outraged) The spare carriage has been taken out

(Long-suffering) Yes, they needed it.

But it isn't here any longer.

Yes, they've taken it out.

But now there is no spare carriage.

That's alright. They needed it and they took it.

It's not alright. There's no spare carriage.

But they had to use it.

It's policy to always have a spare carriage.

This final statement seemed to us to invite the response: "Yes it's policy to always have a spare carriage in case one is needed and not to always have a spare carriage lying around just for the sake of always having a spare carriage." But it was an indication of just how intense the engineers are that there was no attempt to discuss the purpose of the rule. It was clear that the only thing that mattered was the details. Which, it has to be noted, is a fantastic mindset to have when building a model engine exactly to scale. The earnestness in this enterprise isn't just in the driving of the trains. It pervades all, and this means great engines, with real smoke and puff.

But as much as I admire the tenacious attention to detail and sheer skill of this - and I do think it is amazing - I am always tempted to whisper into the driver's ear, 'It's just a train'. But I don't think he'd understand and there is probably a policy to put troublemakers like me off at the next stop. So, I continue to be amazed and incredulous. JMB

Friday, July 31, 2009

Learning to be Patriotic

J is 18 months old.

It's probably time, we thought.

So, we decided to teach J about patriotism. We got him a flag and took him to the Proms.

Oops. Maybe we taught him the wrong kind of patriotism. The proms (after all) is not a very Australian event, but you do see a lot of patriotic people. But we discovered, patriotism in England is expressed very differently to what we're familiar with in Australia.

There is flag waving in both countries. It's just that we can't quite see a mob of Australians waving their flags to... Elgar. But to the English, Elgar inspires flag waving. Even where there is a real spitfire 'dancing' to Elgar, which was quite absorbing and thrilling to watch, flags are held aloft and waved.

Great Britain no longer insists on a single flag. It was quite confusing for us Aussies there at the flag booth. There was the St George flag, the Welsh Flag, the St Andrews Cross as well as the Union Jack. Anyone would think the Empire had collapsed (but I think any rousing rendition of 'Rule Brittania' will demonstrate that this is clearly a myth.)

Pig products are the national dish. We may have commented on this already. We are still coming to terms with it. Our fellow Terry Pratchet fans may assume, like we used to, that 'Piginabun' sold by Cut-Me-Own-Throat-Dibbler is a parody. Not so much. It's more like factual reporting. The pig products are sold unsullied by any accompaniment on a bun. It is 'pig in a bun'. And it may or may not kill you, depending on your consitution.

National music is classical. Good, well-played classical. This was a marvellous discovery. It's not that we don't appreciate country music. Well, actually it is that. Flag waving works better to Elgar than 'I Went Outback On My Horse Called Mildew and I Lost My Girl and I'm Sad, Sad, Sad'. Sure, country music has narrative, but classical music doesn't always have words. And frankly, that can sometimes be a real benefit. Especially when it's chosen and played well.

The war isn't really over. The war with France that is. Insulting anyone else is a hate crime. Insulting the French and reminding them of their loss at Waterloo again and again is a national past time. Give a slightly tipsy guy dressed in a 19th Century soldier's uniform a microphone and you'll hear the French insulted. And the crowd encouraged to boo the French. When they say 'don't mention the war', they don't mean the one in the nineteenth century. It's all about Waterloo. (It seems such a big deal I expect it is actually Cromwell's fault somehow).

The British know how to be in a crowd well. Lots of horses to see, no stand of any kind. So we do what the British do best. We form an orderly queue of sorts. Those of us at the back can't see a thing. But there is no complaining or jostling or nastiness. We all just stand there in an orderly fashion. It is much less stressful than other crowds we've experienced. It's a good national skill to have.

Artillery is a serious business. Still. The guys who operated the artillery to blast at various times in theh programme actually built the artillery. At some point, someone will possibly break it to them that this artillery is not so useful these days. (Which I guess isn't true if it is used each year for these events all around the country). We've moved onto more sophisticated ways of killing people. It is a curious thing, though. One wonders whether in 200 years, they'll have the Proms with battle tanks, machine guns and missiles. That will really put a bang into the 1812 Overture.

And the weather. As the inevitable rain came down (not that we mind it particularly), we were engaged in the care of a small boy and it wasn't until we turned around again that we saw the crowd had become a sea of umbrellas. It was a startling transformation and we should have taken a photo. Instead here is one of number of more serious umbrellas; the truly serious of course were housed in a gazebo (and almost always attired in formal wear). Gazebos could be hired for a cool $A250. We just brought along our dinky little umbrella. But then, we're from the colonies.

We won't try and further J's patriotism any further at this stage. What with the Ashes... he's probably waving the right flag anyway. JMB

Friday, July 17, 2009

English Spring

Thank you to all who kept in contact with us in various ways over the past few months. It's been a weird kind of year for us and as you may have noticed, we haven't blogged for a while. Maybe we'll be able to get back into the swing of things now...

This blog is fast becoming a comment on British weather. But we cannot let Spring get away without comment. It is one of the beautiful aspects of British life. It comes on the heels of winter, with all its sparse greyness and cold. Mostly we quite enjoy this: cold in Britain is a different experience compared with cold in Australia. Houses are heated much more effectively here, so it is easier to warm up if we do get really cold. And coats are serious, so wandering about outside is mostly not too bad.

But the colours mute and even seem to disappear into a dreary palate of brown, leafless trees against a grey, gloomy sky. And so Spring is something of a surprise. The colours come back. Spring soothes the greyness into the background with sudden pockets of pastels, while the green of summer gradually arrives. These little moments of colour startle the eye, so used to the grey brown of winter, and they give way to great splashes of colour, longer days, sunshine with warmth in it and leaves growing and unfurling in beautiful shades of green. Worthy of special mention are the daffodils. Vivids yellows dancing in the breeze are slightly breathtaking. They don't last very long, but they tease the mind with possibilities of summer.

One sunny day, Jonathan and I went for a walk intent on taking photos of Springtime. Here we ran into a slight problem. Jonathan's problem, of course, lay in my unwillingness to entrust him with the camera. It is an ongoing problem he has and one day will result in some kind of camera coup.

My problem, however, was slightly less complex. There were many photos I could have taken of everything from magnolias in full bloom to little bluebells (or whatever they are called), peeping up to the sun. But these pictures all involved a private residence of some kind. I don't know what the etiquette of this is and didn't want to find out. But churches, I decided, are fair game. After all, in this country the Church of England is still established and so church buildings are kind of public property. I, being the public, albeit the foreign public, thought it would be quite acceptable to take photos of churches for private use. I probably put a lot more thought into this than was strictly necessary. I was no doubt dazzled by so many gorgeous flowers and the sudden appearance of sunshine.

Here are my offerings. I hope you enjoy them, and although it ceased being Spring some time ago, it is never the wrong time of the year to see photos of a gentle English Spring. JMB

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Let it Snow!

Some of you may have noticed that while Australia suffers in the grip of drought, flood and fire, the Northern Hemisphere has enjoyed some very cold weather recently. I use the term 'enjoyed' with some hesitation, because I realise that for some it has been difficult to deal with this really cold weather.

Many people over here groan about the snow because it causes inconvenience, and it can be hard to walk through snow and to slide about on the ice. But on the whole, I think snow is a much friendlier 'weather event' than drought, flood or fire. Snow is genuinely beautiful. Snow is also relational: it invites snowballs. And snowballs really need to be thrown in order to reach their fulfilled state.

And we enjoyed it. We took an afternoon off and went out to see what we could see.

What we saw was lots of white covering everything. Snow dusting trees, covering fields, rooftops, chimney pots and flaking down in a gentle flurry of white when it snowed.

We went crunching through the snow and slipping over the ice. We found a pond half frozen with some intrepid ducks valiantly relieving passing pedestrians of their bread.

And seagulls.

Being naive Australians we thought seagulls were only found at the sea. Something about the name of the animal giving us that false impression. So, it was quite a surprise to us to find them gallivanting around in the snow.

Here they are with the ducks on the frozen lake.

Here they are against the snow. You might not be able to see them because they are, well, white like the snow and there are so many of them. I think we counted 43 in this photo, but one can never be sure because they move around a bit.

They're like the Royal Mail: always out there, doing their bit, rain, hail or shine or, snow. I'm not sure that seagulls really count as useful members of the community, but they are certainly, unavoidably present.

Jonathan was quite taken with the snow, and particularly enjoyed watching mum and dad have snow fights. Again, notice the presence of, let's say, 67 seagulls scattered around in the snow. They get in the way of making a serious snowball sometimes.

We all returned from our excellent adventure in good cheer despite the disturbing presence of certain sea fowl.

And now, warmer weather has appeared and melted all but the most intrepid snowpiles. The seagulls, however, remain. JMB

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Home is Where the Heart is/So Your Real Home’s in Your Chest

As promised, here are the kinds of things that I really like about Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog.

To begin with is Whedon’s capacity to cast people well for their role. All the main characters are played by actors who give the kind of performance that leaves me unable to imagine anyone else in the role. And it’s not just the main characters. Minor characters like Moist and the three groupies feel ‘as real’ as the main characters and not simply dramatic white noise. It speaks of someone who understands people well and who has a clear vision of who the characters are in his shows. This makes for great viewing.

Unlike many tv shows, you cannot take a line from one character and just give it to another. Even plot exposition monologues are done in a way that is unique to each character. Further, it enables Whedon to have his characters change and develop organically over the years in a way that, while sometimes surprising, is credible. Again something so often missing in shows, but that is just basic to human life.

Finally, it enables him to gamble in ways that really pay off--using certain actors in two or more of his shows for example, fighting to have Allison Hannigan as Willow, killing off Amy Acker’s much loved character Fred in order to introduce another character played by the same actor showcasing a completely different facet of her dramatic range (try pulling that off in the standard "Doctor's in picket fences at a wealthy high school" kind of genre). Even in a forty minute one-shot, the same qualities were evident and made Dr Horrible work.

So, the concluding song of Act One was able to do pretty well everything I want in a musical number: introduce characters, advance the plot, and set things up so that revelations to occur later appear in embryonic form in the earlier song - as well as certain lines taking on a whole different meaning in light of what happens later.

Second, is that it captures the cheese of supers without descending into camp. Supers are inherently cheesy. Brightly coloured costumes worn skin tight with skimpy speedos/bikinis. Secret identities being protected by flimsy masks or no mask at all. Names like “the Silver Surfer” (it might surprise you to learn that he is silver in colour, and travels through space on a surfboard. Have a guess in what decade he was created) and “the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.” (I mean, come on, it’d be like the so-called Axis of Evil nations calling themselves that.) Heroes who fight real, melodramatic evil, but who are concerned at all times to do so fairly and to never use any firearms and who think that they should never kill even in self-defence. Think of a fondue the size of the world, and you’ve got the super genre.

It is hard to do cheese consistently with a straight face unless you have some confidence in the genre. And so all too often, treatments of the super genre go for the cheap laughs and go for camp a la the Batman tv series and then increasingly with the later instalments of the Batman movies of about ten to twenty years ago.

Dr Horrible avoids camp completely but fearlessly nods its head at the cheese. Freeze rays, death rays, Dr Horrible, Captain Hammer, the Evil League of Evil (I still chuckle at that it's not just a League of Evil, it is a League of Evil that leagues in an evil way you can almost hear the bwa ha ha ha!), and the dreaded super villain Bad Horse (“the thoroughbred of sin”) are all a homage to classic super cheese. And it’s all done with a straight face from start to finish. It deserves a ‘bravo’!

Next is the emotional range. Musicals like Chicago and Chess have one basic emotion and its simply variations on a theme as you go through. That one emotional muscle get a real work out. Whedon gives the viewer an emotional range. So in the midst of the heartbreak and melodrama we get the Bad Horse songs. Here is the first one from early in Act One (slightly out of sync). It’s a letter from Bad Horse responding to Dr Horrible’s application to join the Evil League of Evil (and if that sentence doesn’t crack some kind of smile this musical is not for you). Keep an eye on Neil Patrick Harris' facial expression as the letter is 'read' - absolutely classic:

This raises another great aspect of the musical--Whedon’s capacity to pen memorable lines. The title from this blog was chosen because for months those two lines from Captain Hammer’s (parody) of feel good self-esteem songs (“If you can wish it, you can do it” kind of rubbish) captured for us how silly some platitudes can be. And that whole song is a wonderful mine of such cringe-worthy lines, even as other songs have their own crackers of one liners as well.

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
Everyone’s got villains they must face
They’re not as cool as mine
But folks you know it’s fine to know your place

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
In their own not-that-heroic way

Everyone’s a hero in their own way
you and you and mostly me and you

Now we move into the three things that I think are easy to miss but that move Whedon (and Dr Horrible in particular) way above the pack when it comes to popular culture. First, is that Whedon manages to pull off having the viewer cheer on a super-villain and yet not cheer on evil. It is not an easy thing to do - have the viewer 100% behind the bad guy while inviting them to pass judgement upon them. And yet, it seems absolutely fundamental to Whedon’s moral vision that he will always present evil as evil and the wrong choice for human beings, even when the evil is being done by the ‘hero’ of the story.

I’m a novice at this kind of thing but it seems that there are two techniques that Whedon uses to pull this off. First, he plays up the elements of Dr Horrible’s actions where he isn’t evil - a somewhat heroic set of actions in the first song that we linked, his love for Penny, his basically sensitive and thoughtful nature. This is in keeping with what seems to be Whedon’s (oh so rare in fiction!) grasp that good and evil are not fixed categories for human beings - good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things, and people in either category can shift over to the other side through their choices, and so our decisions matter. Because of this he can still present Dr Horrible as on a downward slide, but still having things that the viewer can resonate with.

His other technique is particularly clever. He turns the superhero vs. super villain conflict over good and evil into a geek vs. jock conflict over the love of a sensitive and supportive girl. It plays on one of the great paradoxes of supers. Most comic readers are geeks. (I mean, how much more geeky can you get than to read comic books?) And yet, the heroes in the comics are jocks - handsome, physically capable, socially confident (ad nauseum), while many of the villains are geeks - withdrawn, socially awkward, highly intelligent, physically not able to match the hero. So in the musical Dr Horrible is a geek's geek and it becomes increasingly clear that Captain Hammer is nothing but a jock. And so Dr Horrible starts with the one conflict (SH vs. SV), switches over to the other to map the moral slide of the villain protaganist, and then swtiches back at the dénouement to make his moral point about the evil of choosing evil no matter the temptation. It is horribly clever (that felt good).

It also means that Whedon has geeks eating out of his hand while he is warning against the way that a geek can start to go down a very dark path. That shows moral courage at a time when most shows will make the target of moral outrage whoever is not part of the core target audience (conservatives on West Wing, people who wouldn’t be respectable in middle-class suburbia in the CSI franchise, that kind of thing).

The second 'big' reason why I think it stands above the rest is that it quietly expresses key elements of Whedon’s world-view. In the portrait of Captain Hammer is Whedon's absolute rejection of Superman, because Whedon recognises that, in the real world, an invulnerable man cannot be a good man. Pain is a necessary component of morality in this world that we live in. This is why Whedon will give his heroes various powers, but seems to really draw back from any kind of invulnerability or making them fully bullet proof. There has to be a genuine cost from doing what is right, and there has to be genuine personal risk for it to be a good action.

Right here Whedon has grasped something fundamental about the nature of the world that is an element as to why God sent his Son to become a human being, and didn't simply send an angel to wow us all with his angelicness. The irony - he's grasped this issue better than many Christians, but hates God, and so (I think) tries to use this moral insight as an argument against his caricature of God (whom he has called the "Sky-Bully").

The final reason flows from this. By and large Whedon's moral vision 'fits' the world I live in. As he deals with issues of forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation (never under those terms of course), of how relationships can be seriously damaged by a person's actions so badly that it can't all be fixed in one nice 40 minute episode, and of how overcoming estrangement between people doesn't simply just turn the clock back on the relationship but changes it into something new(all of which is particularly evident in the later seasons of Buffyand Angel) it all reads as "Life Jim, and as we know it." Even when he comes out with things that just clang (his attempts in Angel and Serenity to say why we should choose good when we live in a universe with no inherent meaning - a big issue for someone who subscribes to absurdism as Whedon does) they at least make some sense despite how daft they are. Whedon's stuff suggests he is pretty cluey about life stuff. And I want that in a show - particularly when (like with Whedon) I disagree with him almost as often as I agree.

And because it 'fits', Whedon at his best does what Terry Pratchett does at his best. He manages to tell the story so you go 'ah ha that's how life works,' rather than pounding you over the head with the moral of the story and forcing his view on you.

I have regularly been asked what I think of West Wing. I love the characters, and I love the fast-paced, dense dialogue. But it completely fails on this point. Yes, it is all about a moral vision. But, like the Star Trek franchise, it lives in a world where Pollyanna sits down for tea with Mary Poppins while some cloyingly cute child dances with a talking animal. The only things that don't stretch my credulity to the breaking point are the teleporters, warp engines, and replicators, and the Nobel prize winning President who spends most of his time talking about what food is on the menu or playing Trivial Pursuit with his staff. The view of life and morality that is on display is pure fantasy - it is how the writers think the world should work, not how the world really is. And it only 'works' in the shows because the writers cheat and never allow the characters to genuinely experience the consequences of their actions, all the time twisting your arm up behind your back to force their moral lesson upon you.

Whedon can be guilty of this too, but so far it tends to be contained to the two things he feels most strongly about (a fairly savage irony there): his absolute rejection of faith and God, and a feminist view (almost a conspiracy theory)of chauvinism - out of womb envy a bunch of cavemen plotted together to make everyone think women were evil and that explains why we still have chauvinism today in every culture(even though he admits it's a 'rather silly simplification,' he still claims that on a mass, unconscious level it is 'entirely true.' I suppose if you are as bright as he is and want to believe something you yourself think is silly then it really does pay to be an absurdist.) Apart from these two areas, his stuff is not only sane but often very perceptive and told in a way that catches you up.

Usually somewhere around now (often much earlier) non-fans of the shows accuse me of reading into it a whole lot of stuff that's not there. Their point seems to be along the lines of: it's about school girls and vampires, or a musical about super villain, it can't be anything other than silly. The criticism shows just how much is wrong with so much contemporary entertainment.

Something doesn't have to be high culture, or take itself very seriously, or just thrash around in worst aspects of human existence (I'm looking at you Shield and Sopranos) to seek to illuminate the nature of life and how it is to be lived. One can offer light and silly viewing that has the purpose of saying something serious along the way. Even the Middle Ages could see that with the role of the court jester. The point, is that this is so staggeringly rare that people have all but forgotten it is possible. And that's what I love about Whedon's stuff. I can genuinely switch off, have a little bit of an escape, and still be worked over about the important questions of how to live. There's only a handful of other shows I know of that even attempt it.

So there you go. Just a bit of the reasons why I love Dr Horrible's Sing-A-Long-Blog. Thanks for bearing with me. We'll return you to your regular programming next week. MDB

Monday, January 26, 2009

Do a Blog. Say it was Horrible.

One of the most enjoyable things for me that happened last year was the release of a small show, (being mentioned now because the DVD recently arrived). It comprised three acts, which together ran for around 40 minutes. I almost missed it, because it was completely outside the standard TV/movie production and screening frameworks. It was released on the net, and the makers relied upon a fan-based campaign to do the advertising. I only found out about it due to a good friend of ours with a similar taste for such viewing pleasures and a lot more internet savvy. However, thanks to that friend, I joined some ridiculous number of people worldwide (yes, fan based advertising can work surprisingly well) who caught the three acts for free over the couple of days that they were up for viewing. What is a ridiculous number in this context? Somewhere around 200 000 downloads per hour (yes, that is the right number of zeroes, one million downloads every five hours--a number sufficient to crash the server hosting it).

The show was written, produced, created, and whatever other verb tends to get added by Joss Whedon and his crew, the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel (not about Angelology so that you don’t completely betray your Whedonisque ignorance), the short-lived Firefly, the movie Serenity (which was apparently the essence of what would have been Season 2 of Firefly had it survived), and most recently Dollhouse (not about dollhouses either).
The name of this little production by Whedon is Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, the kind of title that only an under 40’s could love, and even then only those under-40’s happy to wear the “geek” title, and not even all of them. The show is a musical (hence the three acts). It is a tragedy, about a romance, and is a comedy (in the modern sense; classically speaking, as I’m sure all Baddelim readers would be aware, tragedy and comedy are mutually exclusive genres, and the latter is not necessarily funny. Just ask the well known medieval comedian Dante). It is also has a supervillian, Dr Horrible (it’s his video blog that we see extracts from) as the protaganist (played by Neil Patrick Harris), and a superhero, Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), as the dramatic foil. It also has geekdom's current icon, Felicia Day, playing the romantic interest. And it was professionally shot to look like it was cheaply done.

It is the kind of genre-busting thing that is nonetheless pure geekdom that Whedon loves to pull off when he can escape from his network handlers (such as this time--it wasn’t financed through any of the TV networks), that ensures that it will leave people whose tastes are firmly mainstream in the deep cold (“a comic musical romantic tragedy about a super-villain that looks like it was put together by amateurs? Let’s watch Neighbours instead, or Australian Idol, that’s always good”) while generating a cult following of geeks (which is a fairly smart business plan when you’re hoping to recoup your production costs through iTunes and DVD sales--cult following is what you’re looking for). It is one of the most niche-audience targeted things I’ve ever seen, and so, all by itself, is a signpost of just how tribalised contemporary western society is in its pop culture. Nonetheless, it was a hugely successful niche-geeky thingie, even rising to the dizzying heights of being mentioned on Penny Arcade, one of the surest pop-culture indicators for at least one big slice of worldwide geekdom.

I, of course, love it. There are several reasons. First, it is about superheroes and super villains. I grew up with DC comics, and even now will dip back into reading comics from either DC or Marvel that I think might be significant. I’ve really enjoyed the big-screen treatments of Spiderman, X-Men, and the most recent iteration of Batman and Superman, as fairly impressive translations of the ‘language’ of the comic genre into that of the big-budget movie. So a treatment of the super genre by an unabashed fan of comics? Sign me up.

Second, it is a musical. A musical. I get obsessed with musicals. I have several Gilbert and Sullivan musicals on the iPod, and DVDs of a few. They all get a regular work out. But that doesn’t really capture the intensity of experiencing musicals for me. When I first encountered the Pirates of Penzance I listened to it so much in a two week period that I knew probably 70% of it off by heart months later. A similar thing happened when I was first exposed to Chess. I find that the combination of words with music allows for something far richer, and capable of generating far more reflection and insight than words on their own can do. (Heck, because it was a musical, even Chicago was able to say something about human existence and be more than just an excuse to wallow around in the muck of the roaring 20s .) Even after multiple listenings to a song from a musical I still find new things--a clever allusion to a previous (or later) song in the musical that gives a new perspective to both songs, a mismatch between the tune and the words (completely absent in Chicago and Chess, where the music basically acts to telegraph the punches the lyrics are throwing out, but almost a shtick in Gilbert and Sullivan). Musicals aren’t exhaustless, but they repay repeated exposure in a way that few non-musical songs, and few prosaic discussions of human experience (whether non-fiction or fiction) do. So Dr Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog scores high here as well.

Third, is the whole genre-breaking thing. Give me something, anything, that breaks out of the fixed genre-conventions, and pat answers that seem to imprison pop culture in stale repetitions of earlier treatments. A musical comedy-tragedy about a romantic triangle involving a super villain and a super hero and where the villain is the protagonist? You simply can’t follow any pre-existing conventions. Succeed or fail, like it or hate it, it is that beast that is sighted almost as rarely in our modern world as a genuine unicorn: something original. It takes well-worn elements of parts of our popular culture that have been around for decades, if not over century, and puts them together in a whole new way.

Finally, it is by Joss Whedon, creator of the shows that I mentioned at the start, and that are virtually a Who’s Who list of my favourite TV shows--it only needs a few additions of non-Whedonisque shows to make a complete set. Almost everything I want in a show to make it worth my time to watch it he consistently gives. And so next week I’m going to try and touch on just a couple of the things that make Dr Horrible something that I have worn out my iPod in listening to, and that our computer’s DVD reader has only been saved from the same fate because it stopped working just before the DVD arrived.

I suspect that for all, except a small minority of our gentle readers, the fact that this was created by the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is most likely the show’s biggest turn off (after the fact that it is a musical about a super villain of course). People, even those (a surprisingly large number) who enjoyed the movie Serenity look askance when they find out that one’s favourite show is about a school girl chosen to save the world from vampires. Go figure. (Apparently if you take the girl out of school, put her in a space ship, give her telepathic powers on top of her credulity-straining martial arts prowess, and say that she gets her ability from science rather than the supernatural that makes it less embarrassing, and less problematic for Christians to watch. But that just confirms what I’ve always thought. People is crazy.) If you are such a person, you have my sympathies. I really do want to hear how good whatever reality TV show is that you watch, or how watching years of cricket has made you a better person. But I’m still going to try and express why I think Whedon’s stuff is something special, school-girl vampire slaying notwithstanding.

As the penultimate song of the musical says, “do a blog,” “say it was Horrible”. And here at Baddelim we’re going to do just that. MDB

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Nation

Welcome back to all those who still swing by this blog from time to time. Where have we been? Pottering about, working, chasing a small boy up the hall with a penguin on wheels, eating Christmas pudding, enjoying one of the best and most relaxed Christmases we've had, being thankful for many mercies, revelling in the very cold weather and lots of other things.

And enjoying Christmas presents, one of which was a book by Terry Prachett called The Nation, recently published. A good friend of ours who knows we've made a habit of reading Prachett to each other sent it to us and we unwrapped it with great pleasure, and shortly after Christmas got down to the serious business of reading it aloud.

Only it's not really that kind of book.

We've long admired and enjoyed Pratchett (recently knighted) for his wry, witty satire, mostly of England and all its institutions. The Church of England comes in for a thumping, along with Oxbridge, the bureaucracy, the monarchy, hatred of Oliver Cromwell (yes, that is actually its own institution over here), and so on. He does all this in a parody of the fantasy genre (thereby increasing the satire), but has believable, lovable characters which are dickensian in their eccentricity, yet somehow familiar. He writes about people in such a way as to remind us of people we know ourselves. And whether it is the solid, dependable Vimes; the utterly sincere Commander Carrot; the overly interested Death or Albert (his butler), or the fearsome Granny Weatherwax.... they bring a smile to one's face as they are recalled. Because Pratchett knows how to pass on his enjoyment of the world he has created.

And it's funny.

Sometimes the jokes build up for chapters and are suddenly unleashed and the unwary reader finds himself laughing too hard to read. Sometimes they are rather awful puns (or a 'pune' - a play on words, don't you know). Sometimes the joke is ironic and has a rather nasty twist.

But all that is past.

It had faded slightly, I thought with the most recent series about the Wee Free Men. Sure, it was funny, but a lot more meaningful and with a much stronger agenda than previously. I could be wrong about this, and only remembering the great fun the other books were without remembering the agenda clearly. He has always had a strong message in each book, but it was possible to nod your head in the direction of the message and still enjoy the book.

But The Nation was different. In that book it is not possible to enjoy the book without the message. The two are interconnected. The humour is barely there. The world is different.

A tidal wave wipes out a boy's entire nation, leaving him with a stranded white girl and some unpleasant gods to recreate his little island world. It starts black and gets blacker. God is critiqued, discarded and replaced by Science. A little girl's rejection of imperialism and etiquette resolve a crisis situation so that a nation's sovereignty is almost preserved, and Pratchett creates his ideal: a place where Science reigns and politics comes second; and religion and God have scuttled away having no place to stand. Dawkins and Einstein interact on his island paradise; the natives have telescopes and all is well with the world.

Except that his basic thesis has a flaw. For some time now Pratchett has peppered his novels with gods. They are mostly quite amusing, if somewhat delusional and basically they are only as powerful as the devotion of their followers. So they keep trying to rustle up followers and most fail and are forgotten, and so grow weaker. If the gods are good for anything, it's amusement value, behaving irrationally in much the same way as the greek gods, which seems to be the model he is working from: he doesn't really attack the Christian God outright (except somewhat obliquely in Small Gods).

All this changes in The Nation. The problem of suffering and evil is raised and used to reject the gods and later God outright. God has no pity and there is no mercy. He is seen as even more malevolent than the impotent gods of the island's nation, who at least only want beer all the time. Pratchett seems to think that God requires slavish obedience, and repays this obedience with only misery, fear and more misery.

The perspective is different to my own, as is probably evident. I liked the fact that he was more or less consistent, but I found it a hard book to read because it was so black and so, so sad. There is no happy ending in this book, unless you count the telescopes and the scientists scrambling all over the place - which could only comfort someone who has an unthinking faith in science as a creed, or perhaps who earns a living from making telescopes. It's a book without hope: the best we have is this life (in which terrible things happen without rhyme or reason and which can destroy the virtuous just as much as the fool) and then we die. Even science isn't attractive, but rather the best you have available to you: it doesn't comfort you or help you make sense of life. There is nothing that can do that.

Terry Pratchett is dying. Hopefully quite slowly. (He is suffering from an uncommon form of Alzheimers.) As he helpfully points out, we might die first. But as he is dying, he is making his message crystal clear: choose Science, not God. It's science as religion. And what is worse, and I think why I was so sad as I finished the book, it isn't because he thinks Science is good and God is bad, but because God is bad and Science is a useful way of stopping him. To get God out of our heads, we need to get Science into it; replace irrational stupidity, which is what he feels faith must be, with rational, reasoned... well, trust in Science really. It's that very British kind of religion, a respectable religion, that one doesn't have to feel ashamed of when listening to Radio 4 or reading The Guardian.

He hasn't won me over. I think there are many reasons to trust God (without rejecting science). The one which comforts me in the empty, lonely coldness life can bring is the death of his Son for us: showing a God who is so much more good than the small category we have for 'good' that our mediocre category must overflow and burst and become something quite different.

But he raises a really good question for us: when the tidal wave comes and takes our 'everything' what will we do? It's a question all of us do well to answer before the wave hits, because it does hit eventually. Even if we sail through life, we all end up where Pratchett is now: staring down death, which ultimately steals all we have from us. Just for the record, when the tidal wave hits, my money is on God's unprompted promise of resurrection from the dead, vouschafed by the resurrection of his own Son. I'll take that over telescopes any day of the week. And twice on Sunday. JMB