Saturday, September 14, 2013

Echo Cygnet

Even after the swans found him, the ugly duckling was never truly happy. Even as he matured into a lithe, majestic swan, he knew in his heart he was still a pale, lanky, awkward duck. His adoptive parents--his duck parents, the ones he thought of automatically when the phrase "my parents" came to be used--were diligent and zealous in their instruction. They named him "Echo" because he was the only one who did.

His childhood was a river of petty jibes, taunts, and insults, broken up only by those times they played at leaving him, a favorite game in those days he was slow to learn how to fly. The last time, that fateful final time he was abandoned, he imagined it to be just another of his father's games.
The Ugly Duckling grew up, got a respectable job, married a swan woman, and, though the prospect filled him with dread, raised children of his own.

Now and then he would wind up in bars in the seedier parts of town trying to pick up duck girls and generally making a fool of himself. On one of these excursions, he found out the old mallard had died. He stared at the obituary, the text rendered blurry and obscure by the same combination of scotch and soda the old mallard preferred. Apparently, the old duck flew too high on scotch-and-sodas and was sucked into a jet engine like some boozy Icarus. The paper had little to say about the duck's life beyond a wry where-are-they-now tone regarding the years-old custody dispute Echo barely remembered.

There would be a funeral. Family Echo hadn't seen in years gathered round to sing the praises of the old mallard. What a righteous, upstanding duck. He thought about going, about showing them all. I'm a swan, you motherfuckers! I was a swan the WHOLE. TIME. But of course they knew. There had been a fight, all those years ago, more out of stubborn pride, he suspected, than any actual love for him. Sometimes across a crowded stream he thought he saw one of his brothers. They never acknowledged him.

Why should it matter so much? He was miserable there every day of his young life. Why couldn't he just move on? Growing up back among the swans he was craven for affection then distrustful when it was given, whipsawing through relationships trying to find that magical answer to the hole in things. A key to solve the riddle of his life.

Alone, the death notice discarded, he took to the sky.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Doctor Who and the Skies of Ixion

1) Heavy Metal, Raining Down

"It's a cupboard," Clara pronounced.

"What?" The Doctor angled his head out of the TARDIS doors. "That can't be right." He disappeared again. They were quite clearly in a narrow metal storage area, just barely large enough for the TARDIS herself to berth. Dimly lit and an uninspiring shade of gray. At the opposite end of the TARDIS, there was a small hatchway, like one finds on a submarine. Were they in another submarine?

"And it's..." Clara, more to herself now than anything, woozy, sleepy, heavy. "That is, I feel funny."

"That would be the gravity!" The Doctor shouted from within the Ship, stepping out quickly before closing the doors. So they were staying, then. Lovely. "Ah." he said. "We're in a cupboard."

"What happened this time?"

"Are you implying we got lost?" Chagrined.

"No, of course not, Doctor. Heaven forbid."

"Good. Because we only did a little bit. Just a few hundred kilometers. But this!" He turned the metal hatch wheel and they stepped out of the cupboard. "This is better."

"We're in a corridor," Clara said, looking out. "And what's with the gravity, then?"

The Doctor seemed to weigh his options, right or left down the corridor, testing the nonexistent wind with his finger before deciding, surely arbitrarily, to go left. "The planet's mass is twice that of Earth, so, well, now you know what it'd be like if you gained nine stone, Clara."

"Nine stone!?" The corridor lurched, suddenly and sickeningly, and the pair were tossed against near wall. "Ow!" Clara said as she made contact. "The walls are scorching!"

"Yes, that's right," the Doctor said in that air of practiced nonchalance that meant he was trying to sweep something very big under a very small rug. "Let's get topside."

"Topside of what?" At the end of the plain gray corridor was another plain gray hatch, which the Doctor opened with characteristic bravado, revealing a staircase beyond. A normal old helical staircase. Not an elevator. Bother.

There was another sickening lurch followed this time by the shrieking of metal collapsing from above. "Come on!" The Doctor shouted and bounded up the stairs.

Clara followed. They were in the middle of it now, whatever it was, wherever it was going to lead them. At the top of the stairway another hatch, and the Doctor was already through it. Clara struggled with the new found carriage of her body, catching her breath at the top of the stairs, only to have it taken right away.

On the deck above, there were machines in the shape of men. They tended controls that were half futuristic computer scape, half nautical nostalgia tour, complete with a giant metal steering wheel of the like seen on old ships. Clara had met the Cybermen before, and took the golden-armored figures as more of that lot.But it was more than that. At the end of the deck, beyond a series of tall flat windows, was the deck of a ship with what looked like gossamer metal sails. The sky outside was a boiling inferno, half-overtaken by a single glaring yellow sun. The sea the ship sailed wasn't water at all, it was boiling lava, stretching from horizon to horizon.

"Right! I'm the Doctor. How can I help!"

The two of them were promptly locked up as intruders.


"Really, are the chains necessary?" The Doctor protested. The brig was another squat gray cupboard, this time with manacles. "Far be it from me to question maritime tradition--"

"Two humans." It wasn't a robot. It was a human being in a metal suit. He introduced himself as Captain Liu. His helmet, retracted, hung down at the nape of his neck. "Unarmored, appearing out of nowhere in the lower hold. You mentioned old maritime traditions, Mister...?"



"Yes, that's right."

The Captain was clearly irritated. "You mentioned maritime tradition. Are you familiar with the penalty for stowaways?"

"Ah. Yes. Well. Now--"

"How did you get on this ship?"

"Transmat malfunction. Sent me, my associate Miss Oswald here, and our steamer trunk quite a bit off course, I must say. We were trying to get to the public library if you can believe it."

"Transmats are illegal in the Ifrit system."

"Yes, which is why you should bring us back to port with you so we can point out the real culprits. Dont' want people transmatting about the refinery, do we?"

"You're quick enough to change your tune, Doctor."

"Well, it's that or walk the plank, isn't it? Now: that shrieking sound from before? To a layman's ears it sounded like a coolant shield breach, but of course that's not possible ship like this, pride of the Third Empire?"

"What do you know about our coolant systems?"

"Oh, nothing, just what I see on the Documentary Channel in the hotel. I do have some gear in my steamer trunk which MIGHT be of help..."

There was another shriek of metal-on-,metal and another deep lurch as the TARDIS crew were thrown against the wall. "Because that's not getting old," Clara muttered under her breath. The robot man before them barely moved.

"I can help you," the Doctor beseeched. "This ship is--" SHRIEK! LURCH!

"No time for that, Doctor," and the robot was gone.

"So...not a Cyberman, then?" Clara whispered.

"No," came the Doctor's reply, absentminded as his mind began to work furiously. Clara had seen this expression on him before. The pinched brow of nervous mathematics, calculating their odds for survival. "The protective suits keep them from dying outside the confines of the sailship." The screwdriver out, and aimed, and the manacles slipped open. Nothing fancy, the ship must use all its power on the coolant system.

"What kind of ship sails on molten lava seas?"

"It's a mining ship," still absentminded, still far away, still doing math. Outside the brig, he turned right. "The sails collect atomised metallic particles. Ixion is so close to its parent star that metal on its surface is literally vaporised, raining back to the surface as particulate matter." Another door. They appeared not to be marked; Clara had no idea how he was making his way. Inside was an alcove of computers. "The sails are built to collect hafnium breezes and molybdenum blizzards. Then the ship makes port at the refinery on the night side. Neat and tidy." He busied himself with a panel of controls.

"Except there's something wrong with this ship and now it's going to explode."

"I wouldn't say explode, exactly. More like melt for a bit, then evaporate."


"Yes..." the Doctor flipped a series of switches.

Clara looked about herself. "Nothing happened"

"Good. The alternative was a fair bit worse. Now, then. Some one's bound to be along any minute."

Clara slumped against the wall, and immediately regretted it. "I don't feel all that well," she said, reeling form the heat and the heaviness in her limbs and thoughts.

"Gravity sickness," the Time Lord pronounced, fishing in his pocket for something. "Here," he produced two tablets, bright green, looking for all the world like antacids. "Take these. Doctor's orders."

Eventually someone came from above decks to retrieve them. The Doctor did his best to explain, but they were placed in manacles again.The ship limped back to Ixion's night side, where a full armored security detail was there to meet them.

"Tell me this, Doctor," the ship's captain demanded. "How did you fix my ship?"

"Would you believe I reversed the polarity of the neutron flow?"

"Not even remotely."

"Well. There we are, then. He turned to his companion. "Clara, welcome to the Sandstorm Refinery. Sorry about the manacles."


The Sandstorm Refinery stretched for miles at the apex of the planet's midnight side, lit up by the lights of the surrounding city and the red glow of still molten lava. It was, even from the prison car, a beautiful sight. Despite the shackles and despite the fact that neither of them had seen the TARDIS since their first hour aboard the lava ship (the Brigantine Gemini, according to the Doctor) Clara felt oddly well, if only because now she no longer felt so blasted heavy.

"It is lovely," she remarked at the sight."

"Yes, well, Ixion's one of the great obscure wonders of the galaxy." His tone was confidential, almost conspiratorial, though whoever was driving the prison car had to know all this. "Not exactly on the main tourist routes. Humans have lived her a little over five hundred years. It's been good for them, the ones that live here, milling about with the high-gravity races: the Penyaxi, the Hoothi, the Silkworm Architects. Culture comes out of places like this."

"And here we are, seeing culture from a police van."

"Oy! Some of my best cultural experiences involved police vans. The march on Moscow, Woodstock..."

"What's going to happen to us?" Clara tried to cut through the conversational riptide.

"Simple. It's a misunderstanding. I'll clear it up."

"A misunderstanding. That we did not actually transmaterialize, that we're time travelers from the year two thousand and thirteen."

"Like I said. I'll think of something."

They were assigned an advocate, a squat human compressed, Clara figured, by years in a high-gravity environment. The advocate looked over their file with the passive weariness of a court-sponsored attorney. They had been fingerprinted and gene-scanned (Clara: human--non-augmented; the Doctor: alien--miscellaneous, a classification which irked him more than he hoped was showing). In the old days of shuffling papers, the advocate would have had a soundtrack appropriate to his apparent apathy. Now it was all holographic floating screens.

"Transmat fraud," he sighed at the screens. "Minimum one thousand cycles inside a refinery facility."

"One thousand cycles?!" Clara exclaimed.

"Don't worry," the Doctor explained. "A year on Ixion is about nine days."

"So," a beat while she did the math. "Twenty-four years!?"

"I'd like to represent myself, if that's no bother," the Doctor turned his attention back to their advocate. "You're clearly overworked here."

"The gene scan indicates neither of you is from Ixion. How do you expect to speak to the Court if you have no concept of our laws?"

"We knew the Transmat thing was illegal. That's a start!"

"Request denied. Tomorrow you will be tried."


"Captain Liu," Boswain O'Niell snapped the captain out of his reverie. "We still have the stowaway's crate on board."

"How long until repairs are complete?"

"Another fourteen hours, sir."

"We sail out immediately, Mister O'Niell. Once we're in the gold, jettison the Doctor's steamer trunk."

2) Fire and Brimstone

They spent the night (or what passed for night in a city where it was technically always night) in the same cell, though Clara had the distinct suspicion the Doctor did not sleep. In the morning, back in manacles and back into the police van, the pair were taken from the outskirts of the city to a palatial collection of buildings at the heart of the City of Night. Outside it was a cold and airless dark. The planet was tidally locked, the Doctor explained, so the thin atmosphere of vaporised metal fell off before the dark side's apex, leaving the area around Night a cold void. The buildings were all connected or laced through by magnetic glass tubeways. Outside the protective barrier of the city walls and glass domes was a cold and airless dark. They passed though neighborhoods where oxygen breathers were not allowed, where strange aliens passed Clara by without a second glance. The Doctor, sensing Clara's disquiet, reined in his natural desire to point out every magnificent thing they passed along the way.

The Courthouse was tall and stately and familiar looking, dimly lit from the lava rivers, and not completely off-model from the Old Bailey, Clara thought, a fact she found comforting. At the foot of the marble stairs, their advocate waited. Released from their manacles, Clara and the Doctor were led up the stairs and through the doors to an airy domed atrium where Clara's sense of familiarity utterly evaporated. The atrium was several stories high, criss-crossed at random by dozens of narrow metal beams. On each beam were dozens more tiny birds, chirping in a riotous cacophony.

"Welcome," their advocate said. "You may now enter your plea before the Court of Sparrows."

"It's a disembodied hive intelligence," the Doctor whispered, elated, clearly divorced again from the gravity of the situation. "Each bird represents a set of connections within the broader neural network. Bit slower than your average brain, but capable of much, much more storage. Plus, it's mobile! And independent! And they're birds!"

"So not a Parliament of Rooks, then?" Clara queried dryly.

He looked at her as though she just coughed something up. "Nonsense. Corvids don't inherit the Earth for another million years."


"Ah. HEM." The advocate.

"Right!" The Doctor strode forth to the center of the atrium, hands on the lapels of his jacket.

"Just enter the plea," the advocate muttered under his breath.

"May it please the Court!" his voice raised now, the Doctor stood from the center looking up. "I bring a matter of grave intelligence. Your ships, including the Schooner Electra and the Brigantine Gemini, have been attacked." A crescendo of birdsong, then quiet as ten thousand sparrows held their breath. "Gemini only escaped because of a neutron resonance built up in its cold-front shielding, but mark my words: your ships on the fire sea are not safe. Someone is out there, hunting mining ships. My companion and I--" A theatrical sweep of his arm, "were piloting a small teleport pod--I don't suppose anybody knows what happened to it? No Well, look it to it, please. Our capsule was picked up by Gemini just moments before the attack."

A deafening chitter from the assembly. Moments passed in which the atrium danced with the argument of the hive brain. At last, a single brown sparrow descended on the advocate's shoulder and seemed to whisper in his ear. He turned to his two charges.

"You are to be executed tomorrow."

"Brilliant," the Doctor sighed.


On the deck of the Brigantine Gemini, Midshipman Elmo O'Niell struggled with the large blue box that was the stowaways' so-called "steamer trunk" (though it said "Police" on the side). The thing was spooky. It looked for all the world as though it was made of wood, but stood there, only singed. They were heading into a mercury spincloud; he had barely ten minutes before the heat shielding in his armour was utterly wasted. His hydraulics strained against the weight of the trunk. That was when he saw it. Rising from the lava like some monstrous creature.


"So that's it. Clara Oswald. Born 1989, Planet Earth, died..."

"Ninety-two Twenty-seven," the Doctor quietly offered.

"Ninety-two Twenty-seven, planet Ixion, executed by birds."

"It won't be the birds that--" Clara's expression shot him down. "Brave heart, Clara," he changed tack. "We're not finished yet."

In the morning they were led to the outer gates of the city. The transparent walls looked out to a desolate landscape. Without the haze of an atmosphere, Clara could see for miles. Of course, all she could see were craters and the odd frozen corpse, so it wasn't exactly an inspiring vista. Transmat fraud constituted thousands of years in service, but the Court had deemed them liars, and liars got exiled. Their executioners were tall spidery aliens, apparently wearing masks. The Doctor could surely list every salient thing about them, but Clara wasn't in the mood. Something about impending suffocation.

"Isn't anyone going to ask me for some last words?" The Doctor stalled. "Mine usually go something like 'oh no, not again' but Napoleon, he had some lovely things to say. Or Shakespeare? We could do Shakespeare."

As the spider-men led them to the airlock, all at once there appeared a flock of sparrows. Advocate Montes followed shortly after. "The Brigantine Gemini has come under attack," he explained. "You have been conscripted by the Court of Sparrows."


Some time later they stood in a glass chamber overlooking the Windjammer Serenade, another mining ship and their ride to Brig Gemini.

"I'm going with you," Clara declared, felt she had to, really.

"It'll be dangerous," the Doctor replied, not turning to face her, instead watching men and women load the last components on board the mining ship, its sails retracted, berthed in a lava floe.

"That box is my ticket home. Without it--without you, I'm stuck in--what do you even do for a job in the ninety-third century? I don't mean to be shallow, but the guys? The guys are all five-foot nothing and I don't know how long those gravity pills of yours are meant to last."

"It might not have been the experience I promised."

"That could well be your theme song."

"The lava seas of Ixion, then?" Against the perpetual twilight, they set out.

3) Planet Hell

They were off-worlders. That was for certain. The man, in particular, was a full six inches taller than the standard coldsuit, so Windjammer Serenade had to import one from a Draconian frigate, and now it was Raj's turn to calibrate it to Serenade's on board personality. He felt the compulsion to paint the thing, though there wouldn't be time. The two of them were in the machine shop. All around them hung spare limbs and carapace parts. A few still had paintscapes on them, those that hadn't been outside.

The man claimed to be a physician of some kind, though she'd spent almost the whole time here in the cramped gray machine chop coincidentally alongside Raj while cobbling something from Tango's castoff electronics. The young woman, suited already, had gone to the bridge with Captain Mbane. Raj's mind was a palace of disquiet. Ships had plowed the seas of Ixion for five hundred years, and not since the early days had one sailer attacked another.

"Doctor?" Raj prompted, and the man looked up. "Your carapace awaits." This one was undecorated.

"Brilliant. Love a good carapace." He was off the work bench and on his feet, letting Raj help him back-step into the cold-suit carapace. He stepped back into the cerametal shoes as the legs, chest and arms slowly closed around him. Like Raj and most of the crew of Windjammer Serenade, the Doctor kept the helmet off, hanging connected to the nape of his neck. Raj did his best to explain the basic features in the way a layperson might understand. Though he did look quizzically at the vibra-sword.

"Is there a compartment?" he asked. "If I might like to store something? A key, or whatever?"

"You can store it in the vibra-sword housing, if you like. But whatever you bring outside, Doctor, it won't survive."

"Fantastic. No need for the blasted thing anyway." The Doctor removed the vibra-sword's hilt from his thigh-clasp, and stored in a small, antique-looking key. "Did you paint all of these?" He gestured at Raj's suit, and the spare limbs that still had designs. Raj's own painting was this time a pointillist rendering of a Mjolniran glacier. The snows Raj had seen his whole life were never made of ice.

"What? No, sir. Each man paints his armor before venturing out. Ship tradition."

"You're whom I came to see, in fact. The whole crew, really, but you in particular, before things went a bit...pear shaped."

Raj still didn't follow, and his expression stood as mute testament to this fact.

"See, I've been everywhere," the Doctor explained. "The World's Fair, 1939, the Eye of Orion, the Cleveland Olympics. After a while, after you've seen all the big stuff, you start looking for the little stuff. Everyone on the Windjammer Serenade paints their carapaces. Every day before you go out. The paint is burned away instantly, of course, once you're outside the ship. There's a passing reference to the Serenade's crew in a traveler's diary I bought years ago. She said you create masterpieces and then they're burned away. Just that, that's all. A passing footnote in a diary long left behind."

For some reason this only strengthened Raj's disquiet. He imagined this wasn't what the Doctor had in mind by telling him about this, but civilians weren't allowed on mining ships. These two were the first.

"Raj. Doctor," it was Captain Mbane. "You'd better get up here.


The tall windows on the bridge looked out on the Windjammer Serenade's foredeck. Without her sails deployed, the ship looked skeletal. Beyond the deck, and in Ifrit's blinding light, at the edge of the lava sea, they could make out a shape.

"That's impossible!" Raj gasped. "She should have melted straight away!" At the edge of the horizon, half-suspended in lava, was the Brigantine Gemini. At the top of the crashed ship's aft deck, impervious it seemed to the sun's inferno, sat a blue wooden box.

This was when all hell broke loose.

Serenade shook as something smashed in to her. Raj was nearly thrown as the deck pitched. Ludovic shouted that there'd been a breach, and Raj raced to his console, helmet deploying. The captain shouted orders over the alarm klaxons to shut emergency bulkheads but it would be of little use if the coolant veins were too far gone. Raj's hands worked furiously at the controls, trying to steer coolant through the ship's capillaries to hold off the rising heat. He felt panic rise like the tide. They would sink, there would be nothing left of them, nothing left...

"There are people out there!" The woman--Clara--shouted.

The Doctor stepped forward, closer to the observation windows. "The TARDIS is keeping her afloat. She wouldn't let them go. They must have minutes of oxygen left. Captain Mbane, you have to turn this ship toward Gemini.

"Negative, Doctor. The hull on my ship is compromised. We are in no condition."

"There are people out there, Captain!"

The ship shook again with a terrible force, and men burst into the bridge with vibra-swords drawn.

"What is the meaning of this?!" Mbane demanded.

"Who is the master of this vessel?!" They were all in black, even in this day and age managing to look quite menacing.

"I am!" The Doctor shouted, preempting Mbane. He turned to Clara and muttered something Raj could not hear before the men in black overtook him. In a moment, they were gone, the shock of it lasting only moments. They were still sinking.

3) Black Sabbath

"You'll have minutes," the Doctor told her. "Once you're outside." The TARDIS was shifting between seconds, protecting the remains of Brigantine Gemini within a transduction barrier, a stolen moment. Serenade rammed against Gemini, her windows shattering. Air rushed out and ignited, and the inferno rushed in. Clara was on her feet in seconds, TARDIS key in her hand. The others followed, more out of desperation than anything else. The suit she wore fought its hardest against the blistering heat but it was a losing struggle. She could feel her own temperature spiraling upward. Whatever the key was made of, the TARDIS recognized it and let them through the barrier. The Gemini survivors were clustered around the police box as though it were an idol, or a life raft. Lucky for them it was the latter.


Deep beneath the molten surface of Ixion, the the Breacher Narwhal drove, its engines turned to deadly purpose. Stripped of his heat suit, the Doctor knelt exhausted and in pain at the center of a dim, grey-walled room. Circling him, helmet less and in black armour--and, really, the Doctor though to himself, wasn't black the hallmark of the unoriginal ne'er-do-wells? Add some color to your life; you look like a waiter, like Iron Man's waiter, was there a restaurant like that? Did he visit there or just dream it? He had this coat once, brilliant thing. Where was he? Oh, right.

"Six hundred and twenty-nine."

"What?" The young man, fair haired and fair skinned stopped what he was doing with the electrowhip.

"I figure I've been in this sort of position six hundred and twenty-nine times in my lives. And you know? After a while, it really gets old."

"You will tell me the magnetic entry code for Sandstorm harbor."

"Tell me who you are first. Tell me what all this is about."  Hopefully his captor would relish the chance to monologue. He still needed time to process the scene.

"Hostile takeover, Doctor. This planet, and its wares, will soon be the property of the Organization."

"Just that? Just 'The Organization'? Not 'The Trickster's Brigade' or 'The Apostles of the Poison Shower Head?' That's not very fun, is it?"

"Fun? This planet is the richest in the galaxy. And we will snatch it. We will bring down the heat shielding and the city will die. Then, the Organization will claim this world."

"I won't help you murder millions of people."

"In that case..." his antagonist raised the whip.

"Wait!" The Doctor raised his arms. "Wait."


Hostile Action Displacement System. It was one of the first things he taught her about the TARDIS. When threatened, the ship could make a short hop out of danger. Without hesitating, Clara brought her palm down on the displacement switch and the wheeze-groan of travel began. All around her, metal men stood in wonderment at the police box's interior.

"Right, then," Clara said, removing her helmet. "Explanations are in order."


The bridge was cramped and dim and hot as Collier Black (That was his name! Even his name was "Black"! Classic.) sat the Doctor down at the radio transceiver station. The whole mechanism was rather fascinating, really, a concentrated radio beam in place of sonar, allowing the Breacher ships to navigate blind under thousands of feet of molten rock. His task now, with Black still under the impression he, the Doctor, was captain of the Serenade, was to reverse-engineer a signalling device that let Clara know where to find him, assuming the HADS had not brought her backward or forward some random assembly of years or to another planet entirely. What's a good planet around here? Calufrax? Tedious, and cold. Clara could probably do with a bit of cold after this. Eating shaved ice on the glacier beaches of Calufrax. Divine.
The interface system was rather simplistic. The real challenge was doing all this with Black looming over him like a noisy shadow.


No one believed Clara when she opened the door, but there they were, parked on an airy portico somewhere in the city. The surviving crew of Serenade and Gemini stepped out in disbelief into the glittering twilight. As she tuned back to the console room, Clara found Captain Liu, his helmet off and his vibrasword drawn.

"Steamer trunk? This is a god ship, in the hands of a doddering fool and a girl."

"Oy!" said Clara, as the TARDIS doors closed behind her. They were alone in the console room. "Do you know how to use that thing?"


"That sword thing. Do you know how to use it?" Her own gloved hand was reaching, discreetly as she could, toward the vibrasword hilt at her side. "Did you turn sixteen one year and develop an unhealthy obsession with fencing, to where your Dad drove you every weekend to lessons at the community center? Did it take up your whole life? Did they call you the weird girl, make pirate jokes, and did it all cease to mean anything once you brought home that first trophy?" She drew the vibrasword with effortless motion and flicked it on. "Just asking."


"That's it," the Doctor said, with an air of weary finality. "Done."

Collier Black leaned over the Doctor's shoulder and pressed 'COMMIT'.

Everything went dark. There was a wheezing groan, the sound like keys dragged across piano wire, the sound of the Universe opening up. In the pitch-black darkness, a light began to glimmer.


Collier Black and the crew of the Breacher Narwhal were delivered to the Court of Sparrows. The  Breacher ran itself aground on the shores of the city, its computer system gone briefly mad. The evidence contained within was easily enough for a conviction. The Doctor and Clara did not bother to wait around for the verdict. They had an appointment with a series of glaciers. The mention of Ixion on the news piqued the curiosity of Agatha Takahashi, a travel writer, who visited the planet and the painters of the Windjammer Serenade some years later. Centuries after that, and lifetimes before he would actually visit Ixion, the Doctor picked up a print copy of Takahashi's book in a crowded marketplace on Zandremos Beta. Rajaput Mukherjee's works were never properly exhibited, nor were those of anyone on the Windjammer Serenade. He died of natural causes in 9350.

The Doctor and Clara Oswald are still at large.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel, Man of Heart

Full Disclosure

'Man of Steel' premiered this weekend, and the verdicts are in: second-largest opening this year (behind Iron Man 3), largest opening in June. In the eyes of movie executives and people who like to see shit blow up good, it is an unqualified success. For those of us who grew up with the character, however, its approach is...somewhat problematic.

Full disclosure: I grew up with Superman, particularly the Christopher Reeve films. There was a movie-rental place near our home (Video Kingdom, remember when those things existed?) and when my Mom would take me, I'd always want to rent 'Superman: The Movie', to the point where my Mother, probably driven half-mad by hearing Lex Luthor's master scheme for the hundredth time, tried to gently suggest to me I might want to maybe watch a different film. We probably ended up renting 'Superman II'. This did not stop her, however, from sewing me a Superman cape which you better believe I wore to school, damn it. I also, since we're just revealing everything here, wore glasses from a young age. And there weren't any 'Biclops' comics when I was a kid...

True to Life

According to legend or rumor or what-have-you, the word "verisimilitude" was put on a banner above the art department for 1978's 'Superman: The Movie'. This has, to a large degree, informed how comic books are translated to television or film. Only Batman '66 seemed to say "fuck it", though that program approached comic book lunacy with an eye on camp and winking innuendo, but the intrusion of the real has been a constant pull against the four-color weirdness of the best comics. This makes a certain amount of sense, sure. There are things, particularly visually, that simply do not translate from comics to movies. At one end you have game attempts to, say, get Captain America's cowl right and at the other you have Batman and the X-Men done up as leather fetishists and the Man of Steel himself as some kind of cross between a rubber gimp and a giant toy.

What this also does is create an atmosphere where Clark Kent's whole glasses-and-nebbishness shtick is confined to less than thirty seconds of set-up for the sequel and a shot of an utterly unfooled Lois. Look, movie. I get why you're doing this. And it's by far not my biggest complaint about this picture. What it is, however, is endemic to the approach that results in Clark straight-up killing General Zod. But we'll get back to that. For now, let's stick with those glasses.


Asking someone to believe in real life that someone can just muss up his hair a bit, put on a pair of horn-rims, and pass as a totally different dude is patently ludicrous. I know this. Everybody older than about nine knows this. But Superman, a character invented for children and dragged kicking and screaming into the logic and rationalization of a grown-up movie (I typed "adult movie" at first, which: no thanks.) has to contend with the tug-of-war between this childhood dream-logic and the demands of adults who demand realism in their movies about flying space aliens with laser eyes.

Superman doesn't exist in the real world. He exists in the world of symbols. Key to the character's appeal, to my mind, is that transformation. Superman is the only character who wears a mask in his civilian life. Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, they all put on their masks to go out and derring-do. Superman works on a different level. The point of Superman is that bright, garish, embarrassing part of ourselves we keep under our clothes, that's the part that's going to get us through this, that's the part of us that's going to save everyone. You're born naked, as the man says. And the rest is drag. Superman is in human-drag. He's hiding out in the world, just like the rest of us.

For most of his publication history, Superman and his alter ego have existed in a love-triangle with Lois Lane. It is perhaps his most famous aspect, beyond the whole flight-and-strength gig. Clark loves Lois, Lois loves Superman. OF COURSE in the real world a respected journalist, or anyone who isn't legally blind, really, would put two and two together. This is not the point. The point is what it represents, and Hollywood seems to have a problem with symbols and representation versus a ham-fisted attempt at verisimilitude. We all have our secret aspects, our lurid underselves. Especially growing up, when comic books typically sink their claws in to our psyches. The glasses represent that hiding in the world, and if you can't roll with it with a straight face, then maybe this isn't the film for you.


Superman devotees like myself, we all had a problem with the final fight, the one that culminated in the death of General Zod at the hands of the eponymous Man of Steel. Translated to film, most superheroes have a far more cavalier attitude about dispensing death and judgment, and even Superman hasn't been immune. I don't even have a problem with him exing out Zod, considering the circumstances (dude straight-up tried to genocide the human race and leveled half of Manhattan New Troy. He patently said he was going to keep it up until one of them was dead. So, okay. But we're not idiots out here. We know how plot mechanics work.

I can understand the Last Son of Krypton being put in this impossible position and choosing between the human race, a member of which he's been raised since birth, and this last remnant of his old home, I can get that. But the mechanics of the story built to that point are faulty and hackneyed. Superman makes very few decisions, weighs no real moral options. Zod is straight up going to build a new Krypton on the ruins of Earth. There isn't a lot of decision making involved in "do I stop Zod or what"? To use a recent filmic example, Zod's death here is the opposite of the boat scene in 'The Dark Knight' where Batman essentially wins not by beating up the Joker (which isn't the point of the Joker anyway) but by proving him wrong. Zod doesn't represent any kind of opposition to Superman's general thesis (which isn't ever really developed in the film to begin with) rather he is a force of nature that simply must be shut down.

This is after the aforementioned forty-minute fight, first in Kansas between Superman, Faora, and Unnamed Guy Who Might As Well Be Non, then between the army and the Kryptonians, then between Superman and Zod. It's a brillaint thing to watch, especially before the twenty-minute mark. After then, apocalypse fatigue sets in. For plot mechanics reasons, in fact, Superman is dispatched to the other side of the world to deal with another alien death machine, while the greatest city on Earth crumbles and people die by the thousands, the preventing of which you'd think would be a job for Superman.

Miracle Monday

Zod and his cronies show up on Earth looking for a supermcguffin in Clark's blood (sigh), which they will use to build New Krypton on the ashes of the human race. Absolutely no reason is given for why their massive post-singularity technology can't just relocate one planet next door to either Mars or Venus and just go to town on that. No, Zod seems almost churlish in his desire to erase the human species. As I said above, this presents Superman with a non-choice, which means those things he is meant to represent (Truth, Justice, All That Stuff) are in no way tested against Zod's philosophy. At their best, cape comic characters are philosophical concepts (justice, revenge, patriotism, utopian feminism, ostracized-teen angst) boiled down and given lurid four-color face-lifts. But if Zod is merely a force of nature, a tornado played by Michael Shannon (who is great, but is in Michael Shannon-as-villain mode, and therefore largely wasted) then there is no challenge to Superman's philosophy. As Chris Sims pointed out over at ComicsAlliance, Zod is proved right. Superman is forced to kill him. Take a look, for contrast, at the Superman story 'Miracle Monday', a tie-in novel written way back in the 1980's, about Superman fighting against, well, the Devil.

He wins that fight. He wins it by simply by saying that the purpose of good is to stand up to evil. He wins it not through force of arms (though being invincible sure helps when mixing it up with the Devil) but because he isn't going to back down against a bully. That's the character who is lost in 'Man of Steel'. I hope next time we get him back.

Faster than Speeding Bullet-Points

In brief, what I did like about the film:

  • The Casting: Cavill largely works as Superman, and Costner and Lane nail the roles of Clark's parents. Amy Adams makes a great Lois Lane. Really, the only casting decision I question is Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, and that's down to him not being irascible enough. Also, I'm not sure I'm ready for a Perry White who wears an earring. 
  • Krypton: Kal-El's birth planet goes through a radical change compared to the Donner movies, becoming an almost primordial place teeming with (somewhat toyetic) life, a believably ancient culture, and a technology seemingly based on those novelty things you'd get with the pins in 'em where you stick your hand in one side and there's an imprint of your hand. What the hell are those called? There's a bit of exposition that is almost entirely animated with this graphic, and it's marvelous, makes the whole speech worth it.
  • The first scene when he flies: Traditionally in Superman narratives, flight is the last ability he gains, and there's an obvious reason for that. X-ray vision, super-hearing, these are properly treated as nerve-wracking and creepy, but flight? That is probably the key aspect of Superman as a fantasy figure, and the joy he takes in it is something we can all identify with. Who wouldn't want that?
Elastic Man

In the end, I think, 'Man of Steel' was not made for me. Much like the new Star Trek films, and most comic book films, in fact, it was made to cash in on a general interest in superhero films by the general public, and the general public is probably going to like this film. Is it worth it to me to see the Big Blue Boy Scout succeed in the cinema, even if he isn't very Boy Scoutly? I'm not sure. What I am sure of, however, is that a mildly shitty disaster-porn movie in which Superman straight-up snaps a dude's neck is not going to undo seventy-five years of the character, who has proven elastic to change. He'll keep going, on past a hundred, because he works. The best parts of 'Man of Steel' understand what works about his character. It's a shame the worst parts so effectively drag down the best, but the great thing about these big budget franchise things is they have another chance to get it right. I live in hope. And I remind myself not to take this shit too seriously.

Keep flying.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Danerys Targaryen and the Pyramid of Death

I never read the 'Game of Thrones' books, but, like much of America, I have become enthralled in the story as it's unfolded on HBO. I love epics. I love soap operas. (Don't make that face. So do you. The only reason people don't watch 'Guiding Light' or whatever the hell is because it airs daily and has been on for fifty years, making its story lines impenetrable and insane. See also: superhero comics.)

So I am relatively unspoil't (some might say Unsullied, but that would take balls) with regards to how this whole thing will shake out. That won't stop me from positing, based largely on the mechanics of How Epics Work (which is one of the main reasons I like them; they're the stories that are least apologetic about letting you see how the gears work) whose survival is likely through this season of the program and beyond.

has to survive because she's the only one connected to her plotline. If she were to die in the sacking of Yunkai, I doubt Mormont or Old Guy That Isn't Mormont or New Guy Drawn By Joseph Michael Linsner would suddenly take up her cause. Untethered to her, the dragons would be little more than a nuisance. Directed by her, they are instruments of terror. She is categorically the safest character in the whole show until she actually arrives on Westeros to fuck shit up.

Similarly, Sam, Theon and Bran are safe for now (as is Bran's running crew), given that their plot lines don't intersect with anything in a dramatically meaningful way. Implicit in this is the lesson that if you want to survive in Westeros, get the fuck away from everything and everyone even remotely interesting.

Nothing bad is going to happen to Joffrey Baratheon. He's too much of a shit and we all hate him too much for any misfortune to befall him. Sansa, in the obverse, is safe. As long as she can suffer, she's going to live a long life. The Red Woman will keep around, because the night is dark and full of terrors, y'all, and because she's the most recognizable prophet of her religion.

Jon Snow is probably okay, at least through this season, and I wouldn't count him out as a major point-of-view character. He is the lens through which we view the wildlings and while it's concievable Sam or Ygritte could follow on in his stead, it seems unlikely. Arya and the Hound probably sit around here. I can see Arya lasting the whole series, but that's just because she's awesome, nothing to do with the mechanics of the story.

Both due to their knack as survivors, character-wise, and their ability to fit in just about any story, both Varys and Littlefinger are safe for now, but I wouldn't be surprised if one of them snuffed it long before book seven. The other ends up as the Hand, for about an hour.

I don't have a lot of hope for Robb, That Lady Robb Married, or Cat. Or the Blackfish. Or Cat's Idiot Brother. There are just too many people knocking about Riverrun or the Twins or wherever the hell they are right now. As a head of state, Robb is nominally protected, but we all know the North is going to get it in the kiester before all this is over.

Similarly, King's Landing is just chock full of disposable characters. Somebody in the Lannister clan has to bite it, and I would wager Cersei or Tywin (the latter gettting it from Joff, the former, I dunno, falls down some stairs?) ahead of Tyrion in the death department. I think the diminuitive Lannister will survive at least through this season and in to the next. Bronn? Shae? Their days have to be numbered.

The buddy-cop movie that is Jamie and Brienne will last at least until this season, long enough (I think) for one of the two of them to snuff it. Probably Brienne as it would hurt Jamie, and the only thing more integral to your survival to the Game of Thrones plot than your (eventual) plot utility is your capacity for suffering.

Stannis? Dead. Davos might live but he's like Mormont: without his liege to back he doesn't really serve a purpose, and Stannis might well outlive him, but I wouldn't wager for long. Gendry is similarly ready for the noose. He could outlive Stannis if the Red Lady sees him as a more legitimate line to power.

Probably the one guy with the best chance of living through this whole thing is What's-His-Name-That-Keeps-Coming-Back-from-the-Dead, but since I forgot about him until now, odds don't look too good.

However, it's possible the whole tenor of this story could change. The Red God went from unmentioned in Season 1 to enabling shadow demons and multiple resurrections. The whole war of succession can't last the entirety of the series. The Ice Zombies are coming and they're gonna wreck the North, and it's possible that the show will shift focus to whatever power is behind the Red God, whose disciples I've personally taken to calling Cylons.

Who'd I miss? If I missed them, they're probably dead.