feathersandfractals: Leeloo Dallas, Multipass (annoyed)

avatarSomething has to be exceptional to end up reviewed on this blog. There are a number of ways to be exceptional, but most of the time I review something either because it’s very, very good or because it’s really, really bad.

Hannibal, the TV series currently showing on Sky Living in the UK, depicts Thomas Harris’s eponymous serial killer during the time prior to Red Dragon, when Jack Crawford was hunting the Chesapeake Ripper.

And it’s very, very good.

Hannibal promo shot

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the series, and I’d not expected to like it. Hannibal Lecter, for me, is one of the great character inventions of modern fiction. He’s a serial killer who isn’t the typical sociopath or psychopath. He’s a man of refined tastes. He eats the rude, and that, for me, is delicious. I disliked what was made of the character in Hannibal Rising — Harris took something monstrously pure and gave it a reason to be. He tried to make Lecter a sympathetic character, someone for whom we should feel pity and understanding.

I think Lecter would have despised him for that. Lecter needed no reason to be. He just was.

Bryan Fuller, who developed the series, has stated that he consciously tried to imagine what David Lynch would do with a Hannibal character. But that doesn’t mean this is Twin Peaks with a more expensive taste in wine and patisserie; this is dark, eerie, intelligent, moody and stylish.

Lecter is portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen (who narrowly pipped David Tennant for the role) with admirable restraint and good-natured, predatory grace. Although initially doubtful, having previously seen him as the unnamed warrior in Valhalla Rising, I was won over within a couple of episodes. His accent is going to make it difficult for him to speak perfect Tuscan when he finally gets his job in Florence, but it’s perfect for this series. He has a poise and presence that make him eminently believable as the psychiatrist whose solution to dodgy flute playing is fine dining.

Will Graham, the FBI profiler with the empathy disorder, is played with beautiful sensitivity by Hugh Dancy — who, it must be said, would make a fine Doctor on the back of this performance. His performance was one of the factors that hooked me in the first episode. Over the course of the series — we’re up to episode 11, with a further 2 to go in this season — his portrayal of deterioration has been believable and moving.

The other cast members also do a good job. Will’s doctor friend, Alan Bloom, for this series has become Alanna Bloom, played with forthright conviction by Caroline Dhavernas. Freddie Lounds, the Tattler reporter who loses his lips to the Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon, is also played by a woman in this version, which should make the reinvention of that scene, when it comes, very interesting indeed.

Best of all is the writing. There is a very strong team here, including (huzzah) a woman writer — Jennifer Shuur. (She might be the only one so far, but that’s one more than Doctor Who, at least.) There is nothing in the storytelling that is wasted. There are no plot elements there purely for the sake of being there. This isn’t one of those series where there’s a different story every week with some meta-arc crowbarred into the plot, punctuated with a Hulk smash double episode just to make sure. Every single element of every episode is related, in some way, to the overall arc. Everything — everything — is about Will and Hannibal, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s not immediately obvious exactly how the relationship is playing out, and yet, once it’s clear, the clues have been there all along. In everything. This is what I call fractal storytelling, and it gives me goosebumps. Exposition, the technique of stating everything explicitly, just to make sure the audience understands, is a strange attractor. Everything weaves and twines around it without ever touching it. I’ve not seen a television series do this comprehensively in a very long time; nor one to place such trust in the intelligence of the audience.

It’s not perfect. I’d be worried if it were. In the last couple of episodes the depiction of real medical conditions has been slightly haphazard and the writers have cherry-picked symptoms to fit the story (a particular bugbear of mine). This is, however, my only complaint to date, and the number of people who will be familiar enough with obscure conditions like Cotard’s and Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis to pick up on where artistic licence has come into play is probably small.

Bryan Fuller has done a fantastic job and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do with the rest of the material.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

feathersandfractals: Tank Girl describes ninjas (ninja)

This week Frood and I finally gave up on Sinbad, the new fantasy series being broadcast on Sky 1. Halfway through episode 7 we realised we actually couldn’t give a stuff about any of them and so went in search of something else to watch.

I had been looking forward to it despite the cringe-worthy CGI in the trailers. It was made by Impossible Pictures, who brought us Primeval — a series I enjoyed, for the first 2 seasons anyway. The premise seemed decent enough: young man in the prime of youthful folly is cursed by his Grandmother so that he has to spend the rest of his life at sea, hooks up with a bunch of people who are also on the run for one reason or another, adventures ensue.

Let’s face it. It’s basically Blake’s 7 meets Prince of Persia.

The programme starts off with Sinbad (Elliot Knight) —who wears as much eyeliner as a Sisters of Mercy fan for no reason that has been made clear— in a bare-knuckle fist-fight with another young man. It’s the sort of competition-fighting-for-money used as shorthand for “can handle himself and is a bit bad and dangerous” in numerous other works. In this instance, like so many others, the need for the star to have beautiful bone structure and saucy sex appeal means that he doesn’t get to suffer the usual thickening of facial features and scarring concomitant with the sport.

His opponent dies, in a manner suggestive of evil machinations and political intrigue. Said opponent then turns out to be the son of local bigwig Lord Akbari (Naveen Andrews), of course, who promptly goes completely ballistic and kills Sinbad’s brother in revenge. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS. Sinbad escapes from jail and returns to his Grandmother, who, upon finding out what he has done, curses him so that he cannot spend more than a cycle of the sun on dry land hereinafter. AS YOU DO. Meanwhile Akbari is still frothing at the mouth and insisting that murdering Sinbad’s brother is insufficient payment for the loss of his son, because his son was a high status person and Sinbad’s brother was no better than the dirt under his feet. He employs the evil sorceress Taryn to find Sinbad for the purposes of torture and death. AGAIN, THE OBVIOUS RESPONSE.

It took me a while to work out how they managed to make something so ridiculously melodramatic so dull, and it comes down to the characters.

Take a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey trip back to the 80s and consider the aforementioned Blake’s 7. Stripped to the fundamentals, the premise was pretty much the same. A ragtag bunch of people on the run find themselves a ship, form an unlikely crew and head off to have adventures while pursued by a powerful entity. The effects were terrible, the budget next to nothing, and it was absolutely brilliant. The characters had depth and vitality, and were played by the actors in a way that made them believable. The plots were there to serve the characters and give them a stage in which to express: never were the characters shoe-horned into some implausible behaviour because it made the plot work. Avon’s constant deadpan snark didn’t let up for a minute, whether he was having an argument with Orac, insulting Villa or flirting with Servalan. Villa was never forced to turn heroic (although he was occasionally the hero) in order to give him a more palatable character.

Servalan had depth, character, motivation and was both admirable and admired.

Sinbad, on the other hand, introduced us to Sirens, Death, tattooed ladies, a magic gambling den, CGI monsters and black magic chicken sacrifices, but by the end of episode 6 had failed to explain why Taryn was such evil bitch. There was nothing to explain why Sinbad’s grandmother would take the frankly bizarre step of forcing her only surviving grandson to risk dying a painful, horrible death every day — especially considering that he didn’t have access to a boat when she cursed him. Cook was still little more than a fat, bald bloke obsessed with spices who occasionally dispensed nuggets of wisdom in the manner of a fortune cookie. The nerd was still a nerd, and a hopelessly naive one at that.

The different way the story handled male and female characters made me faintly uncomfortable. All of them had something awful in their past which informed their current behaviour. The Viking, along with his Viking chums, apparently raped, pillaged and slaughtered in the manner of a badly-researched Berkserker. But he was a changed man, and prepared to give himself up to a gang of warriors for justice if they let him save his friend, so actually all that raping and slaughtering was completely forgiven.

Nala was once promised to Death by her people as a sacrifice, and that left her cold and stand-offish. She turned Death down, even though it might kill her new friends, and she was still cold and stand-offish and, really, didn’t change at all except that somehow that made it rain. Kind of. What?

Rina was a thief, who kept stealing stuff, even to the point of stealing everyone else’s valuables when they needed them most. But she was sold into slavery as a child by her parents, and used that memory to defeat a (female) demon, so everyone liked her after that. She hadn’t changed, it was just that she used her degradation in the service of saving the menfolk, so that made it worthwhile having her around.

And Taryn, arguably the most potent of the female characters. Evil for the sake of evil. Compare with Lord Akbari, whose insane, murderous intent could at least be hand-waved as the effect of extreme grief.

I don’t like Sinbad. There’s this weird, corner-of-the-eye disparity between the handling of the male characters and the female ones, and not in a good or justifiable way. Plus it’s another instance of the plot being the over-riding driver, resulting in characters doing implausible things because the plot requires that they do so.

I think it’s time to buy the Blake’s 7 box set to remind myself of how such a show should be done, before they ruin it with a remake.

Originally published at Singularity. You can comment here or there.

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