content by

Alasdair Stuart

Jyn Erso, Bodhi Rook, and the True Birth of the Rebel Alliance

Rogue One is possibly the most thematically chewy Star Wars movie so far. Whether you loved it, hated it, liked it but thought it needed fixing, or are simply pining for a prequel starring the best Gay Asian Space Uncles EVER, there’s a lot to digest. What I found most interesting, though, was the way that two characters can be seen as responsible for shaping not only the tactics of the Rebellion, but its entire character—as well as the price they paid for doing so.

[“It’s not a problem if you don’t look up.”]

Remembering George Michael: Pop Icon and Possible DC Deity

I have two George Michael stories. One is personal, while the other possibly confirms his existence as the deity of the DC TV universe. We’ll get to that one in a second.

My first long-term job was as the assistant manager of a comic shop. We had a staff of two. The other was the manager. So I basically spent seven years straight out of University living inside an extended episode of Spaced. It was, for the most part, lovely. If you were going to work in 20th century comics, the end of the century was pretty much the time to do it. Web magazines like Savant and Ninth Art were firing up and the industry had figured out that actual books were an actual thing people actually bought and they should maybe look at that. A huge number of the creatives working at the top of the field now, names like Warren Ellis, Kieron Gillen, Si Spurrier, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Amanda Conner, and Marjane Satrapi were all starting to come to the fore at that time, too.

So I worked retail, I wrote for and briefly edited one of the news sites and even had some immensely small press comics published. My creative horizons expanded massively and I credit a lot of my positive, open-minded approach to that time.

[A personal tribute to George Michael: artist, philanthropist, and potential deity…]

Fascinating and Confounding: Netlix’s The OA

In UFO Reality in 1983, British UFOlogist Jenny Randles coined the term ‘The Oz Factor’:

“…a sensation of being isolated, or transported from the real world into a different environmental framework…”

The Oz Factor was the first thing I thought of watching The OA, the first in a flotilla of vastly different and very good science fiction shows that arrived on Netflix just before Christmas. The OA is far and away the most obtuse of all of them but it’s also, I’d argue, the most rewarding.

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Authors, Texts, and Shifts in Meaning: The Storytelling of Westworld

HBO’s Westworld‘s had a strong opening year, with the series simultaneously honoring the original movie and transcending it to launch a flotilla of stories that all tied together in one of the most satisfying season finales in a long time. It felt for all the world like Battlestar Galactica at its best. There’s the same willingness to do the seemingly impossible, the same ever-heightening sense of imminent doom, and the same fascination with musical composition as a means of driving visual drama.

The show won’t be back until 2018, and if Season 2 needs that long to be this good? So be it. I’m already looking forward to seeing how this brutal, sometimes compassionate, often horrifying singularity plays out. There’s improvements to be made too, and Katharine Trendacosta over at io9 has a really good breakdown of what the show needs to do in its second season.

For my part though, I keep thinking about how both Westworld, the series, and Westworld, as it exists within the show, map onto one of the major conversations genre has been having with itself for a while now: namely, the interaction between reader, writer, and text—and how that relates to my other day job, tabletop RPG design.

[Today…we escape…we escape…]

Mad World Revisited: Donnie Darko Turns 15

Donnie Darko, the film, is now almost as old as its titular leading character. While the years hang very heavily on his shoulders, they’re sitting very lightly on the movie. Rereleased this week to mark its 15th anniversary, Donnie Darko is a haunting puzzle box of a film that rewards repeated viewings. Especially now, as we sit in a liminal space that’s very similar to the one which surrounds the Darko family. They are trapped in the run-up to an election, a period where nothing quite happens. We’re trapped in the aftermath of one, in the closing weeks of a year that has been difficult in almost every way imaginable. Donnie’s disbelief at his world and his bone-numbing fatigue in the face of how hard everything is has always been familiar, but it’s rarely felt more relevant than it does now.

[“Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion…”]

Unpacking the Possibilities for the Kingkiller Chronicles with Lin-Manuel Miranda

When the votes are counted and the final tallies made, there’s at least one person who has had a definitively, unequivocally good 2016; Lin-Manuel Miranda. In addition to Hamilton’s massive success, there’s the small matter of the album and mixtape both being massive hits, the show’s expansion into other cities, his role in the upcoming Mary Poppins II, and his excellent work on the soundtrack to Moana.

Oh… and now he’s adding The Kingkiller Chronicles to his impressive CV.

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Ghosts of Science Fiction’s Past, New Heroes for the Future: Rewatching Interstellar

If there’s one thing that sets Contact apart from its fellow big idea tent-pole movies, it’s pragmatism. As discussed in a previous essay, Contact is a grounded, smart look at one of the biggest events in human history. It takes its time to do this from multiple angles and goes to great pains to contextualise, if not excuse, each one of those viewpoints.

By contrast, Interstellar is far more seat-of-the-pants in style, throwing huge concepts at the screen with the chilly abandon its director, Christopher Nolan, is known for. That impulsive approach is the cause of a lot of the movie’s problems but it also defines everything from Coop’s emotional trajectory to the ultimate resolution of the movie itself.

[Let’s rewatch]

Per Ardua Ad Astra: National Geographic’s New Docudrama Heads to Mars

Mars, which premiered this week on the National Geographic channel, is, much like the ship it’s about, something of an experiment. It’s a docudrama, but one with far more of a rigid distinction between the two elements than normal. In 2033, the scripted series follows the crew of the Daedalus, the first Mars mission and one beset with problems from the moment they arrive. In 2016, it operates as a series of documentary-style talking head interviews with actual scientists working to make the trip feasible.

It’s a difficult line to walk, and its mixing of fact and fiction might leave a surprisingly sour taste in the mouth in the same week that the Oxford English Dictionary formally recognised “post-truth” as their Word of the Year. However, with mild tonal issues aside, the show both makes its unique format work and is exactly what you might be most in need of right now: a story about people doing something almost impossible and (probably) surviving.

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The Necessary Weaknesses (and Surprising Strengths) of The Walking Dead, Season 7

The problem with stories is that they end. The problem with successful TV shows is that they don’t. The challenge of setting up a story, exploring characters, and moving your world along and then closing it out and starting over is one that hangs over every kind of scripted drama. Soap operas have been doing it for decades; professional wrestling for at least as long.

But it’s scripted drama series, and specifically horror and dark fantasy shows, where the challenge of keeping a story going while keeping the premise viable is really front and center right now. Supernatural‘s bluntly astounding 12 years-and-counting run is a great example of what happens when a concept gains traction but, for me, the really interesting case here is The Walking Dead.

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Wonder, Pragmatism, Politics, and Big Ideas: Rewatching Contact

Every few years, Hollywood attempts a big movie which deals with big SF ideas. I’m not talking the sort of tiny budget breakout success like Moon (which is great) or the zero budget maximum invention movies like Arq and Synchronicity that pepper Netflix (also pretty great). I’m talking about blockbusters. Every few years we get a blockbuster that attempts to ask big questions in a big way—while avoiding the cliche of running away from something in slow-motion while it explodes. Not that there’s anything wrong with the slowmotionplosion school of movie making.

It’s like every other kind of art in that it tells you two stories. The first is the story the creators set out to relate. The second is the story of the environment and time the art is created within—the larger context of which the movie is a part. That second one is often where the big, difficult, chewy, fun issues live, and it’s interesting to see how those change and shift over time. The first version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, for example, is clearly influenced by the “reds under the bed” scare. The second? Watergate all the way down.

[Contact, Arrival, and the Big Idea SF blockbuster…]

When the Marvel Magic Feels Flat: Doctor Strange Non-Spoiler Review

These days there are three ways you can look at the relative success of a Marvel movie: as a part of the MCU, as an adaptation of the existing character, and as a film in its own right. In the case of Doctor Strange, it’s particularly appropriate that your perception of the movie will shift depending on which one of those perspectives you choose.

Let’s start with the good news. This is, for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the character, a really good adaptation. The exact basic principles of the comic are on screen: Stephen Strange is a brilliant, driven, egotistical surgeon whose hands are mutilated in a horrific car accident. Desperate to get his life back, he exhausts every option, eventually journeying to Nepal where he is taken in by a magic user called The Ancient One. She teaches him magic and along the way he meets Baron Mordo, Master Kaecilius, and Master Wong and gets a look at how the world truly works.

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A Guide to Assassin’s Creed for Non-Gamers

The latest trailer for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie, starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and Jeremy Irons, hit last week. I’ve been playing the games, in order, since 2013 and from what we’ve seen of the film so far, it looks to be a fun, pretty faithful adaptation. There’s historical locations, conspiracies, ancestral DNA-based virtual reality systems, hoodies, stabbing, jumping off tall buildings. That’s pretty much the Assassin’s Creed recipe.

But for a game best known for its signature hoodies, jumping, and stabbing, there’s a surprising amount of backstory to the Assassin’s Creed games—and a surprising amount of that backstory seems to feature prominently in the movie. So, with a wide-band spoiler warning firmly in place, I’m going to take you through a quick tour of what I think we’re being shown in the trailers and through the principle tenets of the series. Welcome, newcomers! Find a nice cathedral to climb, put your best hoodie on, take a minute to reflect on the fact that Ezio was the best leading character ever, and get ready to take a leap of faith into the middle of Assassin’s Creed

[A handy guide to the world of Assassin’s Creed…]

Where to Start? Choosing Between the Original Story and the Screen Adaptation

This is the trailer for Arrival.

It’s based on “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang. It’s directed by Denis Villeneuve whose last two movies, Prisoners and Sicario, have varied between ambitious and astonishing. It stars Amy Adams, consistently one of the most impressive and least well-utilized actresses of her generation. It’s a science fiction story that’s based entirely around language, the perils of not communicating clearly, and the personal costs of first contact.

It looks great. Advanced word is that it IS great. And it places me on the horns of a dilemma.

Do I read the story first or not?

[Time to face the chicken/egg dilemma head on…]

Welcome Back to Red Dwarf: The Best Running Joke on UK Television

My earliest memories of Red Dwarf are, like the show, slightly unreliable. There’s no specific moment where Red Dwarf appears in my consciousness. Just this feeling of recognition as, in the barren, almost totally SF-free TV wastelands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I discovered something that felt designed for me. The Seventh Doctor and Ace had just walked off into the sunset and, occasional ITV show aside, there was very little genre TV making the rounds. We took what we could get—and while there wasn’t much of it, what we got was pretty good.

…Not to mention surprisingly dark. The early seasons of Red Dwarf are very nearly Waiting for GodotIn Space. Dave Lister, the last human left alive millions of years in the future, decides to go home. His only companions are the sentient (And DAPPER as hell) descendant of his cat, a well-meaning but increasingly obsessive mechanoid called Kryten, an endlessly laconic AI, and the hologram of Dave’s roommate, Arnold Rimmer.

[Who he hates.]