Review: Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders

In the introduction to her second collection of short stories, Charlie Jane Anders describes the grind of becoming a short fiction writer. The hustling undertaken, the relationships formed, the communities frequented, and above all the long list of rejections; over 600 in her first decade of writing. But the most intriguing detail is a pleasingly catholic attitude to genre:

“Journalism taught me to be punchy and concise, and to turn a jumble of facts and self-serving statements into a true story. Erotica showed me how to establish characters quickly and find the emotional ‘hook’ of a particular moment as soon as possible, because the sex wouldn’t be fun if we didn’t care about the characters. Literary fiction made me pay more attention to my use of language and to the small moments that make the big moments work. A hummingbird fickleness when it came to genre kept me growing as a short story writer.”

It’s a refreshing attitude from a genre writer, a field that often feels like it’s in a one-sided war with literary fiction, with ‘lower’ genres like journalism and erotica barely considered at all. But it also demonstrates the open-mindedness and invention of Anders’ fiction. Reportage, refinement, and, yes, horniness, are all tools in her toolbox, and there is no self-consciousness about using any of them. This is not to say that Even Greater Mistakes is a potpourri of wildly different tones; in truth, Anders’ style is fairly consistent throughout, and as Gary K. Wolfe has noted, nearly half the stories feature obscure and LGBT-friendly bars. But that curious, tinkering, try-anything-once approach is clearly a driving force in Anders’ fiction, and the source of much of this book’s charm.

Of the nineteen stories included in Even Greater Mistakes, several have already been justly acclaimed. ‘Six Months, Three Days’ is a quirky and heartfelt riff on clairvoyance-as-metaphor for a doomed love affair, which also finds room for lines like “Just remember: Would Samuel Johnson have let himself feel trapped in a dead-end relationship?” ‘As Good As New’ is a hilarious mash-up of apocalyptic sci-fi and genie-in-a-bottle archetypes that builds to a moving dénouement. And ‘Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue’ is a harrowing depiction of a fascistic near future where trans people are forcibly detransitioned by having their consciousnesses placed into cadavers of their assigned genders at birth. The story ends when the protagonist, pursued by a walking corpse, “reaches the waterfall, seizes a breath, and jumps with both feet at once,” placing the story in the context of other contemporary SF stories such as Snowpiercer, where leaping into a likely fatal abyss is still preferable to continuing to live in such a thoroughly broken society.

But as brilliant as these works are, the collection is most valuable for its more offbeat and marginal stories. ‘Love Might Be Too Strong a Word’ depicts a generation ship whose society is stratified across six genders, each with particular roles in both ship maintenance and social reproduction, and a protagonist who delights in transgressing those roles when a high-status “pilot” takes a shine to them. It’s a complex and engaging sci-fi premise, allowed to unfold organically and without excessive hand-holding via an endearingly sardonic narrator:

“The city runs on love. It keeps us sane, more or less. Unlike the dark matter that flows into our massive converters, it’s an infinitely renewable fuel. As to whether it pollutes, you probably already have your own opinions about that.”

Themes of love and intimacy also preoccupy ‘Captain Roger in Heaven,’ which demonstrates its key themes and Anders’ gift for narrative hooks in its opening sentence: “Marith didn’t mean to start a sex cult, she just wanted to feel sexy for once.” Marith’s first disciple, Tanya, develops her half-formed bragging about a “sex prophet” named Timur into a bona fide religion, eventually working with a physicist to develop a literal afterlife where the deceased can be viewed via a “Visualizer,” a kind of television showing broadcasts from the spirit world.

“They switched to Jiffy, who was an up-and-coming Visualizer star. Jiffy had been a gay rights activist in the seventies, and then a Radical Faerie in the nineties, and now he was a giant purple unicorn, with a dolphin’s tail instead of back legs. He trotted/swam across the shimmering Fields of Liberation, under the beneficent smile of Timur the Sex Prophet, until he met a swarm of pixies (which were apparently another dead perv, named Rebekah).”

The surrealism of passages like these belie the story’s underlying melancholy. There is a genuine yearning for human touch and community motivating many of the cult’s recruits, as well as a fear of death and consignment to the Hell the Visualizer also displays. Tanya becomes a tragic figure, her real love for Marith ultimately denied as she finds herself alone at the head of this new religion. Anders has argued that many of the book’s stories are about “not just acknowledging, but celebrating, horniness and healthy, consensual hookups.” The sexual content of these stories is not only well-executed, it works perfectly as a way into Anders’ larger themes of loneliness, connection, and finding your own way through human tangles of expectation and desire.

All of which said, there are some weaker stories here, too. The novella ‘Rock Manning Goes For Broke’ feels simultaneously over-stuffed and under-developed. Its guerrilla-filmmaker heroes decide to fight a rising fascist dystopia by making slapstick comedies, and while there are a handful of amusing moments the story never finds an emotional hook. Anders describes cutting down the draft from novel to novella length, but it’s frankly hard to find more than a short story’s worth of material in its silent-cinema-on-the-page antics.

Similarly grating is ‘A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,’ an overlong Douglas Adams pastiche that throws a bunch of tediously whacky concepts at the reader but gives them little reason to care. This is a story where a hero thinks “Hall and Oates save me, they’re going to put us in the Libidorynth,” but if you don’t find polysyllables and references to 80s pop music automatically funny there is little to recommend it. These stories hint at the failure mode of Anders’ fiction more broadly. When the characters feel like a means to generic action, rather than the other way round, or when the reader is simply bombarded with nifty ideas at the expense of introspection, things can get strained pretty fast.

But the collection’s best story, ‘Ghost Champagne,’ finds a perfect balance between offbeat humour and personal reflection. Its protagonist is an aspiring comedian dealing with relationship issues and personal insecurities, exacerbated by the fact she is being haunted by her own ghost. It’s a weird situation, and the narrator responds with sardonic humour masking a deeper hurt: “this is my life, and I want it back. I want to care about things, without my ghost always throwing shade.” Things come to a head at a wedding, when she seizes the champagne her ghost is drinking and downs it, resulting in a bizarre near-death experience.

“A ghost wedding is a funeral, only with dancing, and a cake instead of a casket. What do you give the newlyweds at a ghost wedding? Bone china. Ghost vows are much the same as the regular kind, except you vow to stay together for as long as death holds you.”

The warped, drunken stand-up energy of this scene effectively turns the comedy into something sinister, but it also helps set up the story’s final turn, as the protagonist recovers from her collapse, and reconnects with her boyfriend. The ending pays off the story’s twisting cleverness with a moment of pure cornball:

“Honestly, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me, and the gist of it is that you need to try a different shrink, and maybe no more regression therapy or whatever. But I’m just a layperson, right?

I agree that regression therapy sucks and that Raj is indeed a person that I want to lay. I climb on top of him, even though he protests that my head is still like a Faberge egg, and I grind into him while telling him that if he’s going to be a kept man, he’d better put out the goods. Dry humping, we are alone together for maybe the first time. I laugh between kisses.”

This marks the perfect distillation of Anders’ techniques; peeking out from beneath these stories’ beautiful intricacy is a fundamental earnestness. And when she is on form, as she is for the vast majority of this collection, you believe in her characters as strongly as she does.

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Review: Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks

And so the era that aspired to be an insipid Tennant era cover version seems determined to end with a series of dull and ill-advised specials. While Eve of the Daleks displays a level of plot cohesion and scripting competence that was lacking in Flux, it falls far short of even Chibnall’s previous new year’s day specials, let alone the likely standards of the actually relevant BBC One dramas so breathlessly teased beforehand. This is yet another Chibnall effort consisting of a handful of charming moments lost in a sea of opaque exposition, uncomfortable character dynamics, and grey, uninspiring locations. There are more laughs to be found in its cack-handed attempts to set up a running plot arc than in any of the actual jokes.

What makes this irritating is that it didn’t have to be this way. ‘Groundhog Day with Daleks’ is a perfectly decent pitch for a Doctor Who story, and COVID safety requirements limiting the action to one location and two human supporting characters should enable either a nice self-contained comedy or a claustrophobic drama. Plenty of Doctor Who stories have achieved impressive results by deliberately going small like this. But as a comedy, Eve of the Daleks is distinctly lacking. There are some fun scenes; John Bishop trolling a Dalek is self-evidently a great idea, and “Daleks do not have managers” is a nicely quotable line. But most of the other comedy ideas either grate (the middle-aged mother misunderstanding technology was not funny the first time, let alone the fifth) or are smothered by the relentlessly dour production.

And as a drama? Pffft. The business-acquaintances-to-lovers dynamic between Sarah and Nick lands on the wrong side of creepy (he keeps his exes’ belongings?), and their supposed “meet cute” feels like it merits at best a vague promise to get a coffee, and at worst a restraining order. The ‘escape the warehouse’ dynamic makes the whole thing feel like a very boring video game (hey, there’s the Terry Nation influence), and the Doctor’s plan to create a decoy loop but then execute the real plan tips over into the outright confusing. Chibnall still seems to think that ducking and letting the baddies shoot each other is a worthwhile thing to put on TV as opposed to the most clichéd dodge imaginable, and is apparently still so self-conscious about the Daleks looking silly that he’s given them laser miniguns that look far dafter than anything Raymond Cusick ever had the credit stolen for. About the only vaguely dramatic thing that happens is the show saying that maybe, possibly, hypothetically, there’s an outside chance that Yaz might be in love with the Doctor.

Ah yes. Having joked in my previous review that these characters were too poorly-defined to interpret a single meaningful glance as queerbaiting, I was honestly surprised to see Thasmin rear its head again so soon, apparently in all seriousness. The execution, of course, is complete horse shit. Giving Yaz nothing to do for three series (and indeed much of this episode) only to turn around and declare her in love with the Doctor with only two specials to go is such obviously perfunctory and half-hearted storytelling that I feel ridiculous even pointing it out. It certainly doesn’t help that it takes a straight man to actually initiate this supposed queer love story, with Dan referring to his vague and off-screen romantic disappointments in lieu of the Doctor or Yaz actually building off anything from their dozens of hours of shared screentime. The Doctor blowing off the possibility of discussing her feelings to go on more adventures would be one thing if this were the start of a new series, but with so little time left on the clock for these characters it feels like nothing short of shipping aporia.

Once again, Chibnall’s obvious desire to still be writing for the Tennant era sandbags a potentially worthwhile concept. (Incidentally, note how the kinda bullshit ‘real time’ format of this episode evokes 42). This is clearly setting up a repeat of the Martha dynamic; a companion who loves the Doctor, and a Doctor incapable or unwilling to return her affections. Setting aside the issues with this plotline the first time around — in hindsight, having the Doctor explicitly be less affectionate for the first black companion was an uncomfortable move, and it unfairly marginalised the quite good Freema Agyeman — at least series three recognised that this was its story and built the character dynamics around it from the start. We were meant to notice when the Doctor was distant or untrusting with Martha, and we saw that Martha was hurt by it. But Yaz has been neglected for too long by the actual show for that same show to turn around and try and sell us the story of her being neglected by the Doctor. A same sex romance between the Doctor and her companion could make a fantastic story. There may even be potential in an unrequited love story. But this is not, and at this point likely cannot, be it.

But hey, at least we got Karl back. If he Wilfred Motts Thirteen I am going to laugh so hard.

Review: The Demon Headmaster: Mortal Danger by Gillian Cross

With the Demon Headmaster gone, the Hazelbrook gang are excited by the arrival of the new Head, Ms Martin, or Ms Mountain to her friends. A charismatic speaker and believer in the power of fun, Ms Mountain encourages the kids to seek fulfilment in the arts. But sinister things are afoot, as schools in the surrounding area start making bizarre decisions, before being snapped up by a group calling itself New World Education Consultants. As the gang compete for a chance to go on a school trip to a remote Scottish island, they begin to suspect that the Headmaster may be up to his old tricks again…

Of the many 80s and 90s reboots that clog up the contemporary media landscape, Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster is among the most interesting. After a successful run of books between 1982 and 2002, and a beloved 90s TV show starring Terrence Hardiman, Cross revived the series with 2017’s Total Control. Inspired by the horrors of Conservative academisation, the book featured a Headmaster who planned to use Hazelbrook Academy to churn out ideal workers with the help of creeping private sector involvement. The book inspired an excellent CBBC adaptation broadcast in 2019, a second series of which was announced last year. 2019 also saw the publication of Mortal Danger, the sequel to Total Control, on which the second series will be based. Like its predecessor, Mortal Danger is an exciting and fast-paced children’s adventure story, but with an underlying anger at the state of modern education.

Mortal Danger continues the anti-privatisation themes of Total Control. The New World Education Consultants are represented by decoy villain Simon Weatherby, who declares that “Schools are machines for learning… They should be producing the workers our country needs.” Where previous books have had hypnosis victims describe the Headmaster as “a marvellous man,” here the pupils at New World schools mindlessly repeat that “Our school is very well organized… Learning targets are being met and all the pupils behave perfectly.” The book places emphasis on the Hazelbrook gang as young creatives, and the disappearance of passion from their friends is a chilling sign of corporate takeover. At one point a local newspaper refers to “reports of children suffering from depression and running away from home” — a surprisingly brave reference in a book for younger readers. 

But the book goes one step further in its critique of privatisation. The Headmaster’s plan involves hypnotising the heads of the schools around Hazelbrook into making bad decisions, leading to protest from parents, allowing his puppets at New World to swoop in and take over. This cannily mirrors the dynamics of real-world privatisation, in which politicians run state services into the ground and then use their poor performance as a pretext to sell them off. Admittedly in this case hypnosis takes the place of chronic underfunding, but the basic course of events is the same. This is all very similar to the corporate satire of the 2019 CBBC show, and I would not be surprised if the basic shape of the Headmaster’s New World scheme made it into the next series.

Other things feel less well-suited to the show by Emma Reeves et al. The book’s final third, with its trip to a remote island and expedition up a misty mountain, may be beyond a CBBC budget. More broadly, the book’s climax feels ill-suited to the television versions of these characters. Lizzie is saved at the last moment by her friends, who cause the Headmaster to make a crucial mistake, give up, and run away. This Headmaster is the sinister but easily defeated figure of the original series, rather than Nicholas Gleaves’s near-unstoppable monster. It seems likely that the second series will pit Gleaves’s Headmaster against Hardiman’s, perhaps with Gleaves taking the place of Simon Weatherby, who makes little impression as a villain in his own right.

Speculation aside, The Demon Headmaster: Mortal Danger is a lively and engaging entry in its genre, and preserves Cross’s book series as its own equally worthy endeavour. Precisely how much of it directly translates to the screen is less important than the fact the programme-makers are working from a damn solid foundation.

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Review: We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020

Hard as it is to be positive these days, I think it’s fair to say we’re in a good period for short science fiction. Publications like Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Apex, Uncanny, and FIYAH reliably put out quality material, and a glance at this year’s Hugo Award nominations reveals solid and thought-provoking work by writers such as Rae Carson, A.T. Greenblatt, and Isabel Fall. While structural issues persist — chiefly, as with much of the literary world, a lack of money — quality work is coming out, and some of it is even getting recognised. Within this context, there is a decent amount of good queer fiction. While far from an avalanche, queer themes are more common than they were before, and explicitly queer characters are handled deftly by superstar writers like Sarah Pinsker and Charlie Jane Anders. Enter small press Neon Hemlock and editors C.L. Clark and Charles Payseur with We’re Here 2020, the first in a new anthology series designed to showcase the best LGBTQ material from this new new wave of cognitive estrangement. These sixteen stories provide a fascinating glimpse into the rich and strange world of contemporary queer SF, even if there is some noticeable roughness to the overall package.

One of the anthology’s greatest pleasures is its diversity of styles. This is a book where metafictional Gothic pastiches, true crime podcast parodies, melancholic post-apocalypses, morally ambiguous fairy tale sequels, and bittersweet coming of age stories sit side by side. The wide variety of tone and subject matter lends the book an unpredictable edge, effectively demonstrating the versatility and inventiveness of the contemporary scene. That said, there are a handful of running themes which suggest a greater unity.

One of these is embodiment and transformation, whether through magic or sufficiently advanced technology. In Lina Rather’s ‘Thin Red Jellies,’ a couple find themselves cohabiting in a single body after one of them has a car accident and gets her mind “uploaded.” The story dramatises the economic hardships Jess and Amy face as they try to scrape together the money to buy a liveable robot body, their dual embodiment serving as both analogy for and heightening of the resentments that can build up under closeness and duress.

“Amy’s hands shook, because Jess was trying to clench them. Amy fought it off. It was her body after all. She had better control. As soon as she thought it, she felt guilty right down to the pit of her stomach and she crushed the feeling before — she hoped — it bled over to Jess. They’d made a conscious effort to talk about ‘our body’ and ‘ourself’ and ‘our hands’ as instructed by the hospital pamphlets, for all it did.”

‘Rat and Finch Are Friends’ by Innocent Chizaram Ilo, meanwhile, tackles a boarding school crush between two young shapeshifters who must hide their rodent and avian forms from those around them. When the narrator’s aunt catches him flying, she is quick to intervene, preparing to clip his wings on the pretext of protecting his safety:

“Aunty Njideka fished out a pair of scissors from her waist-bag and began to stroke my back, light strokes which grew more intense until two grey wings sprung out. ‘Close your eyes and count to ten. This will be over before you know it.’

The door opened. Papa walked in, still in his pajamas. He hesitated before asking, ‘What is going on here?’

‘I am saving your son.'”

It’s easy to read this as a metaphor for socially conservative family members forcing queer people into the closet, and the horrifying ways in which queer bodies are policed and abused more generally. And while the story does explore this territory, it’s a more nuanced and bittersweet engagement than the children’s picturebook title might suggest. We learn than the narrator’s father is a shapeshifter whose family clipped his wings, and though the story’s climax sees the two boys forcibly separated and the narrator’s wings clipped, the final note is one of defiant hope:

“It is the first night of the new school year, and we should not be seen together. But here we are, a boy and a finch with no wings, sitting on the hostel roof, counting the stars.”

Several stories deal with broad social and political disasters, juxtaposed with a kind of personal catharsis. ‘The Last Good Time to Be Alive’ by Waverly SM depicts a near-future Rugby, “on the wrong side of the flood barrier that hasn’t been opened in years,” rapidly drowning as London looks the other way. It’s a bleak vision of climate change-driven disaster, but it ends with the protagonist receiving a clueless text from absent parents:

“You don’t register your own reaction until your knees are pressing hard against your forehead, your shoulders shaking with useless, breathless laughter. There has to be something to leaven these last remaining days, some small, stupid joy you can cling to.”

This sense of happiness snatched from impossible circumstances is most acute in R.B. Lemberg’s ‘To Balance the Weight of Khalem.’ It centres on a refugee, buffeted “from one war to another,” seeking community and self-expression as well as to satisfy their constant hunger. It is a densely-structured story, the repetition of key phrases lending it a poetic, rhyming quality, and the abundance of otherworldly detail invoking the confusing rush of being caught in geopolitical circumstances beyond your control.

The narrator is grappling with their own identity, powerfully asserting that “I need to be what I am, even if it’s a boy. I am neither — or both — and one day I may be entirely a boy, or not.” Paralleling this declaration, though, is a wry acknowledgement of their wider situation: “I am here only provisionally.” It’s a powerful statement, especially for a year in which it was reported that LGBTQ asylum seekers in Europe are met with a “culture of disbelief” about their own identities. Lemberg’s story may be the finest on offer here; it certainly feels like the most urgent response to a 2020 in which the international struggle for queer rights was more pressing than ever.

But for all the brilliance of the individual stories, there are some questionable editorial decisions. The choice to put the two video game-themed stories, Naomi Kanaki’s ‘Everquest’ and John Wiswell’s ‘8-Bit Free Will,’ side by side is an odd one, making the anthology feel less diverse than it is. Less acute but equally noticeable is the clustering together of found document stories and stories featuring parents implied or stated to be repressed. A more deliberate spreading out of these stories might have helped things feel less repetitive.

These are not the book’s only sequential oddities. Arley Sorg at Lightspeed points out that We’re Here 2020 is made up predominantly of stories by lesser-know writers, with the outlier being ‘If You Take My Meaning’ by Charlie Jane Anders. Other than its author’s celebrity, what marks this story out is that it does not stand alone; it is a sequel to Anders’ 2019 novel The City in the Middle of the Night. The City in the Middle of the Night is an excellent novel, to be sure, and ‘If You Take My Meaning’ is a reasonably interesting sequel, expanding on its idea of human-alien hybrids and adding some welcome nuance to its occasionally vapid liberalism. But the story’s inclusion does strike me as a bit inaccessible. If the aim is to provide a primer on what’s interesting in queer SF right now, bolting on an extra 485 pages of required reading seems counter-intuitive.

Even more striking, however, is the reference in C.L. Clark’s introduction to “Charlie Jane Anderson.” The book’s copyediting is beyond a mess, at times making stories actively unreadable. This goes beyond simple typos (though there are plenty of those); Anya Johanna DeNiro’s ‘A Voyage to Queensthroat’ is titled differently on contents page and title page, and L.D. Lewis’s ‘The Currant Dumas’ does not seem to have been proofread at all. Some dialogue is formatted improperly, there are inexplicable shifts from present to past tense and back again, and at one point our heroes are chastised: “I hope those ladies dismissed you and you didn’t sneak just sneak off.”

Worse, there are points where the editors have somehow introduced new errors into the texts presented. Take this passage from the original version of ‘Rat and Finch Are Friends,’ in which the protagonist receives a letter:

I’m sorry. I apologize for my behavior. I appreciate understood what you did for me humanity last night. You know we Amusus and our pride that won’t let us say thank you be appreciative.

And compare the same passage in We’re Here 2020:

I’m sorry. I apologize for my behavior. I appreciate understood what you did for me humanity last night. You know we Amusus and our pride that won’t let us say thank you be appreciative.

I freely admit that copyediting is the dullest quality on which to judge any book, but the confusion and frustration of these passages do negatively impact the reading experience, and serve as a caveat to any recommendation. Hopefully these lapses can be chalked up to the stresses of launching a new yearly title, and can be smoothed out in future instalments. The We’re Here series is an eminently worthwhile project, and this inaugural edition succeeds in demonstrating the richness and vitality of the field, even if the presentation often leaves a lot to be desired.

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Review: Doctor Who: The Halloween Apocalypse

The story of Doctor Who since 2005 can be understood, among other things, as the show reverting to the mean. The appearance of more monsters, characters, and locations from the classic series gave way to the dethroning of Russell T Davies as the show’s controlling auteur. Moffat and Chibnall, by virtue of offering new takes on the format, dragged this prestigious BBC flagship back towards the old ropey, eccentric embarrassment of channel controllers everywhere. And so, on the eve of the second coming of Russell T Davies (which can’t help but overshadow this series as the Impending Chibs overshadowed the adventures of the Doctor, Bill, and That Guy Who Used To Do Brownface), the show offers the first episode of a six-parter more concerned with setting up a nebulous evil than in telling its own story, which ends with the Doctor and chums finally confronting the titular threat head-on. It’s a shame that Sontaran took off his helmet before the cliffhanger, really. 

But for all the folly of reviewing individual parts of a whole story, The Halloween Apocalypse is remarkable for not even pretending to stand alone. Its goals within the arc are surprisingly modest; establish Dan as a character, introduce the flux, then just pile on the hooks until cliffhanger time. In New Who terms it’s most reminiscent of The Magician’s Apprentice; like that episode it’s at its best when things slow down and our leads can talk amongst themselves, though unlike that episode the leads have little to talk about beyond the dregs of last series’ arc. Nonetheless, the party mode retains some of its charm, and the sheer volume of stuff means it rarely gets boring, even if it does feel weird to hold off on remaking The Chase until Bradley Walsh left the programme.

And truth be told, there’s some good stuff going on here. Dan is instantly charming, and John Bishop is an intensely likeable screen presence. He’s enough of a comedian to make duff lines like ‘who likes soup, really?’ work, and his character’s status as a food bank volunteer too proud to take anything home is a decent character hook. (Even if there is reason to be sceptical that a Chibnall take on contemporary food poverty will land well when all is said and done). The banter with Karvanista (clichéd alien name aside) is genuinely funny in a cut-price Arthur Dent kind of way, and the reveal of the ‘man’s best friend’ motivation is utterly charming. In an odd way, Dan’s story benefits from being surrounded by arc setup; given a smaller amount of space to sell the character, the episode manages something sweet and relatively economical amongst all the explosions.

The explosions themselves are another matter. While a certain amount of slack can be granted in a multi-episode story, the result is no less, well, slack. Even as the episode is all set-up, it still manages to have a slow start, and once Big Bads do start popping up they’re frighteningly generic. One Sontaran insulting another who awkwardly tries to change the subject is funny, but not quite as funny as treating ‘and THE SONTARANS’ as an epic raising of the stakes. The Weeping Angels menacing a River Song knock-off feels like a re-run of the most banal aspects of the Moffat years, and the two dark lord characters feel like Can You Hear Me? Redux. Their method of contacting the Doctor feels particularly cheap, just intermittently conjuring visions of themselves in a move obviously copied from the ‘psychic connection’ plotline of the later Harry Potter books. The decision to hinge so much of this series on lore from The Timeless Children is frankly a headscratcher (who still remembers a name as generic as ‘The Division’ eighteen months and a whole pandemic later?) and Vinder manages to contribute less than nothing to the story. Oh, and I guess the episode takes place on Halloween. OK.

Fading into the background somewhat, in the episode itself as well as this review, are the Doctor and Yaz. They do benefit from the smaller TARDIS crew, with Whittaker and Gill selling the pair as dashing adventurers in the cold open (even if it feels a little too exposition-heavy to be a breezy action beat). The conflict between them as the Doctor tries to hide her agenda from Yaz gives the TARDIS scenes a sense of vigour they haven’t had in years; Whittaker is particularly good at selling the angry petulance of the Doctor trying to turn the tables, and at the paper-thin denials as the TARDIS succumbs to Bidmeadean malfunctions. Gill is still stuck playing a rather generic role — not helped by Chibnall’s weird tic of having the Doctor ask and answer her own questions in the investigation scenes instead of creating character interplay — but she competently conveys a sense of plucky charm. That this marks a high water mark for the character is damning with faint praise. It’s hard not to hope than Mandip Gill goes on to better things, even as the episode’s proliferation of characters talking to themselves feels like it’s setting up the era’s inevitable Big Finish revival.

Also, apparently the Doctor and Yaz share a bed? Well that’s certainly a bone thrown to the shippers, even if an actual commitment to another Doctor-companion romance would be more satisfying.

Judged on the terms it so laboriously sets for itself, The Halloween Apocalypse is a diverting piece of television. It is not remotely its own story, but if the plight of the shipper tells us anything, it’s that the making of promises can be its own kind of entertainment. (I remain, always and forever, Whoffaldi trash). Doctor Who is back, and it’s making a lot of promises, but is at least doing so with some charismatic leads and a sense of manic glee. Perhaps that’s enough. For now.

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Schedule Announcement: A Blog in Flux

Well, we’ve got an air date now. And a trailer. So I guess it’s time to announce what we’ll be doing here for the rest of 2021.

I will be reviewing every episode of Doctor Who: Flux as they go out. The first review will be available to everyone on this blog for free. The subsequent reviews will be exclusive to my Patreon, where you can read them for as little as $1 per month.

I will try and get these reviews out as quickly as possible, but the late timeslot and the balancing of work and other commitments is going to make that a challenge. Expect them some time between the Monday morning and the Wednesday evening after the episodes go out.

I will be continuing my monthly arts coverage while Doctor Who is on. November’s post will be about the We’re Here 2020 anthology from Neon Hemlock Press and December’s post will be about Even Greater Mistakes by Charlie Jane Anders. As usual, you can back the Patreon if you want to read these reviews a week before everyone else.

Doctor Who and book reviews should keep me busy for the rest of this year, and if there is a new year’s day special in January I will review that as well.

After that, things get tricky. I’ve been running this blog on a more regular schedule since the start of 2021, and while it’s been a lot of fun, I’ve been operating at a loss. That’s been fine, but after January 2022 my financial situation will change significantly. If the Patreon doesn’t reach a sustainable level by then, say around $100 per month, then I will not be able to continue this as a monthly blog.

It would be wonderful if we could reach $100 per month, and if you consider this blog worthwhile, please do share it with your Doctor Who or science fiction enthusiast friends. But if we can’t reach it by January, I will switch over to a bimonthly schedule, with patrons being charged per creation rather than per month. I will deliver more detailed updates to my patrons nearer the time.

For now though, there’s a new series of Doctor Who to get excited about. I admit I’m leery after the flaws of Chris Chibnall’s first two series, but I’m curious to see how the show has adapted to the challenges of filming amid coronavirus, and I’m always a sucker for some good Cybermen action. I can’t wait to start blogging about it, and I hope you’ll join me for this blog’s most epic adventure yet.

TL;DR, the Patreon is here. All my Doctor Who reviews will go on there. What happens after that is partly in your hands. You might even say it’s… in flux.

Review: In The Watchful City by S. Qiouyi Lu

The notion of the fragmentary seems to preoccupy several reviews of S. Qiouyi Lu’s debut novella, In The Watchful City. Jake Casella Brookins at the Chicago Review of Books describes the story as “struggling between lengths,” while Bethan Ackerley at the New Scientist finds herself “wishing that certain events… had been given more room to breathe.” In The Watchful City is a slim volume, its main narrative breaking off into four short stories and two verse sections, embodying a wide variety of genres and tones. And though it gestures at several broad topics and gives some pointed details about its setting, it is largely not a book interested in slowing down or explaining itself. It’s easy to find fault with such a vision, and there are certainly moments in the narrative where its reach exceeds its grasp. But fragmentariness is a perfectly legitimate artistic choice in itself, one which Lu deploys to create an interesting, multi-layered novella, even if it’s not quite the transcendent kaleidoscope touted by its most enthusiastic reviewers.

Anima is a “node” in the city state of Ora, tasked with surveilling the population and carrying out a combination of administration and police work. Powered by a transcendent technological force called the Gleaming, æ has the power to quantum leap into the bodies of the city’s wildlife, both natural and cyborg, in ær patrols of the territory. But when the foreigner Vessel arrives in the city with ser “qíjìtáng” of mysterious artefacts, Anima finds ærself intrigued. Each object in Vessel’s cabinet has its own story, and Vessel requires only one more to complete ser collection; an object se proposes to take from Anima ærself.

The greatest strength of In The Watchful City is its versatility of prose style. The main narrative often feels like Dylan Thomas by way of Animorphs, Anima’s perspective rapidly shifting as æ jumps between the bodies of different creatures. The density of information can sometimes feel disorienting, with nuggets of history, politics, relationships, and taboos flying at the reader indiscriminately, but it is refreshing to read a science fiction story that does not feel the need to spoon-feed exposition. Instead the reader is left to navigate an unfamiliar setting with the scant information that a single life provides; not a map, but the tools with which to make one.

The individual stories sparked by Vessel’s cabinet are also strong bits of genre fiction, ranging from acid western to epistolary palace intrigue. They provide clues about the overarching narrative while still functioning as standalone pieces. The best of them, ‘As Dark As Hunger,’ presents a brutal vision of a mermaid diaspora and a main character returning to a toxic ex, building to a tragic ending that nonetheless allows the protagonist to reclaim some small shred of agency. The juxtaposition of the different stories enables the reader to build up a larger picture of the setting, placing Anima’s story in a wider context of personal and political struggles.

But for all the strengths of these individual pieces, the book overall has its flaws. When it comes time for Anima to relay ær story to Vessel, it is in the form of two verse sections. Varying up the style even further is a nice idea, and the genre shift enables Anima’s narrative to feel personal and immediate in a way the other stories don’t. The issue comes in the poetry itself, which is fairly standard free verse; not bad free verse, but when one reads things like “i was nine / when my parents left. / my father wore someone else’s face / as he showed a stolen exit visa / at the io gate” it’s hard not to feel a clash between the plainness of the form and the strangeness of the content.

These stylistic issues aside, there are some moments of muddy and unclear storytelling. The climax of the second story, ‘This Form I Hold Now,’ hinges on a sport called “combat skycups,” the rules of which are constantly explained at the expense of the action, making the scene both overly detailed and difficult to follow. The main narrative’s opening pages don’t quite manage a hook, and Anima’s relationship with ær fellow nodes, particularly ær occasional foil Enigma, don’t feel sufficiently elaborated on. And while the novella’s conceit naturally entails a certain degree of metafictionality, when the Thematic Statements arrive it’s with a thudding, Gaimanesque awkwardness:

“‘I understand,’ Vessel says, nodding. ‘Maybe you can write something down instead. Whether truth or fiction, that has always helped me. It doesn’t so much remove the pain as it domesticates it into something you can coexist with.'”

In The Watchful City is a worthy, challenging piece of work, one which impresses for its variety and its willingness to let readers puzzle things out for themselves. But while its flashiness is enough to keep the reader solidly engaged for 186 pages, there remains some doubt about how long that impression may last.

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Review: Doctor Who: Scourge of the Cybermen by Simon Guerrier

In the annals of science fiction publishing, there are few subgenres as contested as the Doctor Who novel. With origins stretching back to 1964, barely a year after the show itself started, for much of the twentieth century these were largely straight novelisations of television stories. At the start of the 90s, however, with the TV show cancelled and a generation of talented fans champing at the bit to create, original prose narratives became the main vehicle for the series. These new adventures, published by Virgin Books and later BBC Books, defined much of what we now think of as standard Doctor Who. Contributors including Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, and Russell T Davies would go on to successfully revive the TV show in 2005, and other writers like Kate Orman, Ben Aaronovitch, Lawrence Miles, and Paul Magrs pushed the series in bold and fantastical new directions.

But with the television revival came a sea change in the Doctor Who novels. The increased scrutiny from an image-conscious BBC meant they were no longer a place for wild experimentation, nor a place where a sharp up-and-comer could publish their first book. Instead they became a space for rote reinforcement of The Brand, largely dominated by those 90s and early 2000s authors who hadn’t managed to break out more widely. While the post-2005 BBC Books has produced some interesting work by writers like Naomi Alderman, Juno Dawson, and David Solomons, the name of the game has mostly been stagnation. (At least in the original novels; the original short stories and revived novelisation series have been much livelier). These days, it seems even BBC Books isn’t into it; in 2020 it quietly abandoned its line of original novels featuring the Thirteenth Doctor, pivoting instead to the maze of impenetrable fanwank that was Time Lord Victorious.

Into this climate of apathy steps Big Finish Productions, with its new line, The Audio Novels. Big Finish, while equally dominated by 90s mediocrities as the book series, has a fairly good track record with its prose offerings. The Companion Chronicles and Short Trips lines have reliably provided compelling and well-produced Doctor Who stories, and have been marginally better at introducing fresh talent. Their formats lend themselves to unique and experimental takes on Doctor Who, sidestepping some of the awkwardness of Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays. Plus, they’ve been lucky enough to attract some of the best writing talent in the Doctor Who spin-off world, including Ian Atkins, Una McCormack, and the author of this newest offering, Simon Guerrier.

Guerrier is an interesting choice for this first audio novel. One of the last authors under the wire before Doctor Who books became a completely closed shop, he has a flexible and inventive style which has served him particularly well in the Companion Chronicles range. For Scourge of the Cybermen, that style is turned to a rather difficult question: how to launch a new series of Doctor Who novels from the fundamentally conservative position of modern spin-off media? The result is a solid and entertaining thriller, but one that feels just a bit too timid to launch this new format.

We open in medias res, with the Third Doctor and Sarah Jane helping out a deep sea base in the far future, a whole city of scientists working to mitigate the effects of pollution. Being a base in a classic-flavoured Doctor Who story, it’s not long before it finds itself under siege. The death of a crew member is put down a strange new radiation sickness, and the base’s internal politics exacerbate the situation. Meanwhile the Cybermen, rusted and dilapidated from years underwater, are stealing power from the base, waiting for their moment to strike.

OK, so it’s not the most original premise in Doctor Who history, but a story like this should be judged by what its premise allows it build. In this case, an example of the old-fashioned, nuts-and-bolts science fiction that the TV show did in the 70s. The opening scene is a conversation between the Doctor and a group of scientists, and Sarah Jane sets the story in motion by noticing a problem with the lights. That technically-minded, problem-solving spirit animates the rest of the story, which features numerous bits of exciting futuristic technology and plenty of cleverness involving computer screens and data processing.

But for all its old-fashioned vibes, this feels like a story informed by the present moment. Once the radiation sickness becomes public knowledge, the citizens begin wearing protective hoods, and a paranoid atmosphere pervades the base. After living through the 2020 coronavirus lockdowns, Sarah Jane’s feeling that “it was exhausting, being alert and yet nothing actually happening” hits all the harder. Her later indignance at a lack of protective suits (“Stealing protective gear in the middle of a crisis!”) distinctly echoes the issue of PPE availability at the height of the pandemic, and the government’s failure to provide adequate protection for healthcare workers.

This dread-filled atmosphere is aided by a crisp and adroit production. Steve Foxon’s score is spare but impactful where it counts, with some wonderfully crunchy, metallic sounds underscoring the Cybermen in action. Nicholas Briggs’s Cybermen voices are solid as ever, and his inhuman cries as the rusted monsters struggle to speak are particularly unsettling. But it is Jon Culshaw’s narration which truly impresses. Best known as an impressionist with the Dead Ringers troupe, Culshaw proves a strong dramatic narrator, able to sell the tension and claustrophobia of the novel’s corridor-creeping sequences even without help from the soundscape. All of this adds up to an effective showcase for Guerrier’s novel, which like much of classic Doctor Who is stronger at creating a chilly ambience than outright scares.

The strongest moments revolve around the base’s processing room. Depicted on Claudia Gironi’s striking cover, one of the lower levels is given over to “a vast field of sunflowers” steeped in oily water. These sunflowers process oxygen for the rest of the base, a striking hybrid of natural beauty and a grungy, industrial setting. This chamber proves to be the Cybermen’s base of operations, and there is some effective horror in the initial sequences of metal soldiers emerging from the depths. But the novel’s best scene comes later on, as the radiation sickness scares some members of the base into queuing up for cyber-conversion. There is a gorgeous bit of black comedy as Sarah Jane shows up to dissuade the new recruits, many of them less than keen on cyber-conversion, but more worried about losing their place in the queue. A very British apocalypse.

But for all these strengths, there are moments when the novel falters. Much noise is made in the early sections about ordinary civilian life on the base. There’s even a nicely cruel scene where cafe owner Denzil reflects on the lives of his customers, only for the narrator to intone: “He… felt sure they had a future. He was wrong. They didn’t. And neither did he.” Yet after a brief follow-up scene, this thread is simply dropped. We don’t find out if Denzil died in the Cybermen’s attack or was even converted himself. There’s a somewhat over-egged twist about the base’s security chief being part of an undercover unit of “Cyber Hunters,” and though the novel gives us a couple of flashback scenes we never really get a sense of who they are, or of what “The Code” they all pledge themselves to actually is.

The pacing also leaves something to be desired. It takes a solid hour and a half for the Doctor and Sarah Jane to actually meet a Cyberman, and the novel as a whole is oddly structured. Instead of chapters, the book is divided up into six “parts” of between 60 and 90 minutes. Not only is this unwieldy, with individual parts being too long to comfortably fit into one sitting, it results in some cliffhangers feeling arbitrary, as the narrative has to artificially stop every 10,000 words or so.

Scourge of the Cybermen is not a novel of bold new directions, but of well-executed traditionalism. As such, there is a lot to enjoy here, but it feels like a questionable choice to begin a whole new line of Doctor Who stories. The novel’s imperfections could be forgiven if it were willing to push the format a bit more; pieces of flawed genius are how the show progresses. But as it is, they just drag a decent story down to average, rather than keeping a great story from being transcendent. For all that it has going for it, Scourge of the Cybermen is a curiously tepid launch: a first instalment that gives the listener little reason to stick around for the next one.

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Review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

When unemployed university graduate Jess first hears the voice of her grandmother’s ghost, she doesn’t understand it. The child of Malaysian immigrants, Jess has lived in the US for most of her life, and so doesn’t know the Hokkien word for lesbian when Ah Ma demands “Does your mother know you’re a pengkid?” It’s a powerful opening, effectively introducing the novel’s central double act of Jess and her cantankerous ghost grandmother, and solidifying its themes of queer identity and cultural dislocation. Black Water Sister is a savvy and engaging novel, its achievements predicated on this tight control of narrative and theme. 

Jess and her parents are down on their luck. Her father is in remission from cancer and the family is heavily in debt. Seemingly out of options, the family has moved back to Malaysia to stay with Jess’s aunt while they look for a place of their own. This already uncertain situation is further complicated by the aforementioned ghost. Jess’s grandmother has unfinished business, and the two become embroiled in the fight between a local temple and the real estate developers who plan to build luxury condos on the land. The temple is home to the titular Black Water Sister, and Jess soon finds herself pursued by an even more formidable presence than her ornery grandmother. This is a novel with a lot going on, but Jess herself is a strong anchoring presence among the ghosts, gods, and gangsters that populate its pages.

Indeed, the character of Jess is perhaps the novel’s biggest strength. Her drifting, uncertain postgraduate life will be familiar to many readers, and her internal monologue is an endearing blend of the sardonic and the vulnerable. At one point she reflects on her family relationships; “It figured that she’d avoided getting nagged to go to law school, only to get nagged to become a vessel for the dead.” Yet while her parents don’t exert much pressure on her career choices, and are supportive of her photography, Jess has not yet been able to come out to them. This contributes to a general sense of Jess as an outsider, occupying a liminal position between America and Malaysia. Some of the novel’s most intriguing moments involve Jess deliberately swinging from one identity to the other, or her family reacting to her ignorance, such as when she asks her uncle something about the temple:

“The look Ah Ku gave her was familiar… It was a look of realization that here was an alien to whom even the most basic things, things everyone understood, would have to be explained.”

This sense of dislocation ironically brings Jess closer to her dead grandmother. In life Ah Ma herself was an outsider, a working-class woman alienated from her family and her abusive husband, and Cho herself has noted that the two are both “clever at being angry.” This kinship lends a compelling quality to the novel’s central relationship, even as Ah Ma’s tricks and elisions mean that Jess (and the reader) are never quite allowed to get comfortable. As for the titular deity, the reveal of her origins adds a further symbolic richness to the story, as she, Ah Ma, and Jess are bound up in histories of patriarchal violence, with Jess left to sort through and find some sort of closure for the suffering of previous generations.

If the novel has faults, they are partly in the area of pacing. Ah Ma is absent for much of the book’s mid-section; these chapters can sometimes feel a little slow, and her eventual return is somewhat contrived. A few supporting characters also feel underdeveloped. Other reviews have pointed out that Sharanya is something of a cipher. She and Jess break up partway through the novel, but even when they eventually get back together, there is a certain weightlessness, simply because we know so little about her. Similarly, Jess’s uneasy and ambiguous ally Sherng feels like his plotline is building to a dramatic dénouement that never quite arrives, leaving him awkwardly hanging around at the end of the story.

But while these quibbles may prevent Black Water Sister from reaching classic status, the end result is still an imaginative and thoughtfully-built novel. The ending manages to feel both tantalising and wholly fitting, a satisfying capstone to this sensitive and highly enjoyable book, which ought to secure Cho’s status as a major voice in contemporary fantasy fiction.

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Sherlock is Garbage and Here’s Why is Garbage and Here’s Why

This article first appeared on DoWntime in March 2018. It was originally part of a longer series, but this material was written independently, and is posted here as a record.

I. Accounting for Taste

About 14 minutes into his feature-length whinge that 90-minute television episodes from the 2010s are not, in fact, short prose stories from the 1890s, Hbomberguy addresses the changes made between the unaired 60-minute pilot of Sherlock and the 90-minute A Study in Pink. He asserts a number of problems with the story as eventually broadcast, but takes particular issue with the introduction of Mycroft Holmes:

“The pilot seems to demonstrate this [theory that art benefits from rigorous editing] happening in reverse, where the full show was given an extra half an hour, so they thought ‘oh great, that gives us time to insert the co-writer of the show’s character early, and have intrigue that doesn’t go anywhere because he turns out to be, like, just a normal guy who’s worried about his brother, and also connect a nice and simple first story to Moriarty for no reason!'”

Aside from showcasing the video’s irritating habit of creating maliciously incompetent caricatures of the people making Sherlock, this is a mind-blowingly sloppy piece of criticism, veering from a reasonably sensible premise to misleading half-truths followed by a deeply revealing statement of values, such that dissecting it will serve us well going forward. With that in mind, let’s crack open the mind palace.

The initial proposition, that Sherlock suffered from the shift to 90-minute episodes, is not, prima facie, unreasonable. I think it’s terribly unimaginative, and ignores later episodes such as The Sign of Three or The Abominable Bride, whose plot structures take advantage of the greater space devoted to them, but series one in particular can be fairly accused of resorting to delaying tactics. Stuff like the separate mini-adventures in The Great Game, or indeed the business with Mycroft in A Study in Pink, while fun, are clearly examples of the writers reacting to a late decision to extend the episode lengths. So when Hbomberguy accuses the Mycroft subplot in A Study of Pink of being, essentially, filler grafted onto a 60-minute story, he is still within the realm of moderate sense.

Where this argument starts to go wrong is in the details, or rather the lack thereof. Because Hbomberguy elides a crucial detail in his summary of the ‘extra bits’ added to A Study in Pink, and as such he spectacularly misses what the episode is doing with Mycroft. When Hbomberguy says (through his ventriloquised author), that “[we can] have intrigue that doesn’t go anywhere because [Mycroft] turns out to be, like, just a normal guy who’s worried about his brother, and also connect a nice and simple first story to Moriarty” he implies that these two events (the intrigue with Mycroft and the connection to Moriarty) are in some way separate, when the episode itself deliberately blends those two aspects of its plot.

When John is kidnapped partway through the episode, he is taken to a sinister-looking abandoned warehouse, where he meets an oily posh man in a suit who is apparently able to have people kidnapped on a whim, and who displays an apparent flair for the theatrical. (John objects that “You know, I’ve got a phone. Very clever, all that, but you could just phone me on my phone!”) The man, who neither John nor the audience actually knows is Mycroft yet, proceeds to archly refuse to confirm his identity, and suggests he bears some ill will towards Sherlock himself:

“JOHN: Who are you?

MYCROFT: An interested party.

JOHN: Interested in Sherlock? Why? I’m guessing you’re not friends.

MYCROFT: You’ve met him. How many friends do you imagine he has? I’m the closest thing Sherlock Holmes is capable of having to a friend.

JOHN: And what’s that?

MYCROFT: An enemy.

JOHN: (Almost laughs) An enemy?

MYCROFT: In his mind, certainly. If you asked him he’d probably say his arch enemy. He does love to be dramatic.

JOHN: Well thank God you’re above all that.”

A little self-indulgent, perhaps, but by no means subtle: the episode clearly expects its audience to assume that Mark Gatiss is playing Moriarty. Even the shooting script plays along, coyly referring to Gatiss’s character only as ‘M’. It’s an assumption which makes sense, given what we have seen so far. Mark Gatiss is an actor specialising in oily, besuited English villains, and kidnapping someone off the street reads far more intuitively as the action of a villain than that of a sympathetic supporting cast member. All of this helps set up the mystery around Mycroft, such that the revelation he is actually (albeit problematically) sympathetic comes as a surprise.

(The logic by which a man with the power to do such things with impunity is read as “an ordinary guy,” however, remains obscure, and Hbomberguy misrepresents this subplot in his phrasing and presentation. That the summary collapses multiple scenes into one sentence can be forgiven for the purposes of brevity, but by hanging on the abandoned warehouse scene for this section of narration, Hbomberguy implies that these revelations all happen in one scene. Germane to his argument that the subplot goes nowhere, but conveniently eliding the fact that the episode goes to several places, most notably an abandoned school and an ambulance, before this subplot is complete. By showcasing this subplot entirely with one of its initial setup scenes, Hbomberguy depicts as static and inessential what is a more elaborate and interesting bit of misdirection in the episode itself).

The Mycroft subplot in A Study in Pink also sets up one of the main things Sherlock as a show is interested in (and one of the aspects best served by feature-length episodes), namely its extensive play in the details of the Holmes canon. The implied viewer of A Study in Pink is one who knows Sherlock Holmes well enough that they will assume the Big Bad for Series One of a modern re-telling will be some version of Professor Moriarty, and is dimly aware, if at all, that in the Doyle version Sherlock had a brother named Mycroft Holmes. As this level of knowledge more-or-less corresponds to that of the average British TV viewer in 2010, the reveal works and feels terribly clever, while any diehard Doylists who happen to be in the audience get to feel rewarded for knowing who Mycroft is. It’s a trick that relies on the fact that the audience will be more familiar with Moriarty than with Mycroft, but the existence of Mycroft in the Doyle canon is the connection that allows the reveal of who Gatiss is playing to not feel like a cheat.

Whether you find any of this impressive is another matter, of course. Certainly the observation that it contributes essentially nothing to the main ‘catch the killer’ plot is fair enough. But it does indicate that Sherlock is a show interested in this kind of textual game, as well as (and increasingly instead of) catching killers or solving crimes as such.

Which brings us to the most telling part of the spiel quoted above, namely that the episode “connect[s] a nice and simple first story to Moriarty for no reason.” The second part of this quotation is the most ridiculous on its face; the reason to connect the first episode to Moriarty is pretty damn obvious. He’s the Series Big Bad. He will turn up for another connection in Episode Two, and then a Final Confrontation in the Finale. This is how a modern series of television works, and yet this appears to be precisely what Hbomberguy objects to. Which makes the first part of this quotation all the more revealing; the problem with these subplots and textual games, apparently, is that they detract from what is otherwise a “nice and simple” story.

That one could read Sherlock as setting out to be in any way nice or simple is so farcical as to be dismissed without comment. But it does reveal the crux of Hbomberguy’s objection to Sherlock. Sherlock, you see, does not give a shit about solving mysteries. Hbomberguy, on the other hand, sees this as its primary reason to exist. That he finds the resulting episodes disappointing is therefore sensible, but it does not make his view any less odd, or less detached from the content and aesthetic goals of the show. Throughout his video, Hbomberguy stresses that his main source of pleasure in Sherlock Holmes stories is the mechanics of mystery-solving. He praises the first episode of Elementary for some canny play with the possible, however improbable, and he repeatedly demands to know when Benedict Cumberbatch will solve a crime.

The pleasures of procedural mystery-solving are certainly present in multiple iterations of Sherlock Holmes, and the detective genre more generally, but it would be an extremely reductive view that stated that was all there was to it, or all it could possibly be. Raymond Chandler viewed the detective plot as principally a battle for one’s soul. Jimmy McGovern viewed it as means of angry polemic. More recently, Hannibal built an elaborate sitcom-cum-torture-porn-cum-Miltonian epic out of the stock elements of police procedurals, True Detective fooled everyone into thinking it was interesting by flirting with Weird Fiction, and Collateral built a sprawling State of the Nation drama out of a generic police investigation. The detective genre, as well as an end in itself, can also be a means to other things, and ‘metafictional examination of the legacy of Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘interrogation of masculinity,’ and ‘ostentatiously clever hyperreal romp’ are clearly among the things it can be now. Yet here Hbomberguy is, blithely demanding that instead of all that, Sherlock should simply recreate the genre as it stood in the late nineteenth century, absent more than a century of development, and indeed absent the idiosyncrasies (and, it must be admitted, the self-indulgences) of its authors.

I should stress, Hbomberguy’s reasons for disliking Sherlock are entirely understandable. If one’s primary pleasure in detective stories is the mechanics of Solving A Crime, then one is clearly not going to be satisfied by Sherlock. It is perfectly valid to enjoy the snap of a mystery coming into focus, just as it is perfectly valid to not find pleasure in something that does not offer that experience. Similarly, it is perfectly valid to enjoy the serialised, 25-minutes-a-week-with-a-cliffhanger structure of classic Doctor Who, and to be disappointed that this structure is absent in the new series. Different viewers will take pleasure from different aspects of a text, and sometimes those pleasures are taken from aspects unique to one particular version of a text, or to something that primarily existed to serve the needs of a given time or medium.

Where this becomes a problem, however, is in treating the pleasures one takes from a particular version of a text as intrinsic to any and all versions of that text, or of being blind to the differing goals of differing iterations. It is precisely this kind of chauvinism which leads the more blinkered among Doctor Who fandom to treat the new series’ sparing use of cliffhangers as a serious lack, and causes Hbomberguy to treat the lack of focus on logical deductions in Sherlock as a similar lack. This despite the show repeatedly telling us that this version of the character, and indeed show, is more about character and emotion, even as Sherlock himself insists otherwise. (Sean Dillon perfectly summarises the show as defined by “Sherlock’s repeated claims that he’s an emotionless being who is pure logic, typically done while shouting emotionally”).

This kind of chauvinism, as well as leading to pretty weak literary criticism, can cause one’s aesthetics to twist in odd ways (for instance, by declaring The Blind Banker to be ‘one of the good ones’). More broadly, the ways in which such chauvinistic readings go wrong is indicative of the larger failings of pop criticism in general, and a sobering reminder that, in the wake of the author’s death, the reader must be more attentive to their text than ever before. If you are going to make a hatchet job, then for God’s sake, do your research.


II. The Lying Detective

It’s all the more infuriating, because Sherlock has offered a much better self-critique than any of its YouTube detractors. Unsurprisingly, it comes in series four. Series four, of course, is the story of Sherlock tearing itself apart, beginning by killing off its best character, and meticulously unravelling everything that made the show unique, eventually collapsing into a nice and simple series of detective yarns too boring to ever broadcast, a hellish condemnation to single vision and Newton’s sleep.

In the midst of this comes The Lying Detective, which more than any other episode presents the moral case that this version of Sherlock Holmes has outlived his usefulness. Hbomberguy, of course, spectacularly misses this. In a stunning feat of superficial reading, he is apparently unaware that the villain of The Lying Detective is a Jimmy Savile analogue, asserting that

“The villain of episode two is Culverton Smith. There’s no evidence that he’s a criminal. But you begin the episode knowing he’s a bad guy, because his daughter says to Sherlock that he remembers him saying he’s a murderer. So we already have his confession. Then it twists and says ‘oh, she was fake.’ Then within about five minutes it untwists because he did do it. So… again what was the fucking point?”

Oh, I don’t know, perhaps that society is set up in such a way that obvious monsters can hide in plain sight, deploying obfuscating techniques to ensure that their crimes go unreported, while at the same time openly talking about those crimes? You know, like Jimmy Savile did? Hbomberguy goes on to assert that the episode would have been more interesting had Culverton turned out to be innocent, which, while perhaps an amusing enough structure for a mystery story, would be completely wrong for a story about Savile. Which The Lying Detective obviously is.

Even more telling is Hbomberguy’s complaint about Eurus’s involvement in the plot: “They never explain, of course, how Sherlock’s sister figured out that Culverton Smith was a villain.” Yeah, because it’s not like he admits to being a serial killer on television within the episode or anything. Again, Hbomberguy myopically focuses on deduction mechanics, and misses what the show is actually trying to do, namely tell a story about how a society can allow an obvious predator to thrive, and how such predators abuse and gaslight the vulnerable to maintain their positions. The tastefulness of doing ‘Sherlock Holmes versus Jimmy Savile’ can absolutely be questioned, but Hbomberguy isn’t even doing that. He’s still just arguing that Sherlock should function more like every other damn cop show, at the expense of criticising the actual episode.   

Because The Lying Detective is not just a story about how the British establishment enables people like Savile to survive and thrive. It’s a story that ruthlessly implicates Sherlock, and indeed Sherlock, in that same establishment. (Note that one of Culverton Smith’s mind-wiped accomplices “sits on the board of a prominent broadcaster”). The focal point of this is the much-discussed deduction/drug withdrawal sequence, covered in an irritatingly superficial video by the Nerd Writer (in five minutes of analysis, he manages to not once utter the names ‘Steven Moffat’ or ‘Nick Hurran’, and much of his analysis boils down to what Sam Keeper memorably calls “the one thing nerds love most of all to replace literary criticism with: Number crunching”).

Because the brilliant thing about this sequence is how thunderingly obvious Sherlock’s epiphany is. The Nerd Writer describes it as Sherlock “grappl[ing] with the thought of how many serial killers might be hiding behind wealth and fame like Culverton Smith.” This is almost, but not quite, accurate; the revelation is in fact much broader than that. Let’s have a look at the relevant dialogue:

“SHERLOCK: They’re always poor… and lonely, and strange. But those are only the ones we catch.
WIGGINS: Who do we catch?
SHERLOCK: Serial killers. What if you were rich and… powerful and necessary. What if… you had the compulsion to kill, and money? What then?”

The real brilliance of this sequence, past the (in practice) obvious reveal that Culverton Smith is the bad guy, is the spectacle of Sherlock having the most elaborate Nick Hurran trip in the show’s vivid history, only to realise something that should be blindingly obvious: that institutional abuses of power are a thing. This should not be a shocking revelation for anyone with half a brain, especially not to a mind as supposedly brilliant as Sherlock’s, and yet it clearly is. Hurran’s direction ramps up accordingly, diving into the almost self-parodic as Sherlock starts walking up the walls at the realisation that, holy shit, if you were rich, and wanted to kill people, no-one could stop you! That Sherlock could be so ostentatiously brilliant, and yet so utterly lacking in awareness of how the world works, is a pretty damning assessment, but it’s not more than a restatement of what we already know about the character. Sherlock Holmes is a bohemian aristocrat, so rich in leisure time that he gets involved in adventures from the comfort of his flat in central London (that he can hold such a place without an actual job is telling in itself). Sherlock is the ultimate oblivious posh boy. Of course he’s going to be blindsided by the idea that the rich and privileged could abuse their power. (Note the choice of Wiggins as Sherlock’s foil in this scene, the most unambiguously working class member of Sherlock’s supporting cast, whose reaction to Sherlock’s babbling is largely elided).

This, like the treatment of the Twelfth Doctor in his final series, is a pretty brave decision for Steven Moffat to take. The admission that your hero is fatally flawed and myopic does rather raise the question of why the audience should continue following their adventures. In Doctor Who, the answer is ‘because the hero can change, along with the entire creative team.’ For Sherlock, that answer is off the table. Once you have reached the fundamental limits of the character (and ‘he is a member of the same institutional hierarchy that enables and facilitates systematic abuse’ is a pretty fundamental limit) there is little more to do except abandon him in his stupid little crime-solving cul-de-sac. As Mary Watson says, we are done with having the world explained to us by a man. This, then, is the true brilliance of The Lying Detective. The story so good it killed off Sherlock forever. It’s a surprise Hbomberguy didn’t like it more, really.