In Tenet, celebrated director Christopher Nolan adapts for the big screen a previously unknown novel co-authored by Ian Fleming and Rod Serling. Or at least you could be forgiven for thinking that.
After an unnamed American special services agent (John David Washington) is almost killed during a mission by a bullet that appears to fire out of a wall and back into a gun, he is pulled into a conspiracy centring on “inversion” – the ability to make objects travel against the flow of time.
This set-up allows Nolan to de facto realise his aspiration to direct a Bond film. This is a tale of espionage that shoots between glamorous locations on different sides of the world, whilst going long on smart suits, gadgets and, most of all, action.
That said whilst it is obviously a pastiche, it is never just one. We may be watching tropes which have been deployed many times before, but by hurling high-concept sci-fi at them, Nolan shatters any sense of familiarity they might engender. You may be able to trace the influences on the fight sequences, gun battles and the truly astonishing car chase through Tallinn. However, none of those feature participants moving opposite ways through time. That is something genuinely novel and, given Nolan’s technical mastery, spectacular.
Indeed, they may be the best action set pieces he’s ever produced including “the bat bike” sequence in the Dark Knight.
I am not sure if it has the thematic richness of some of his other work, precisely because it often takes multiple viewings – and hearing about other’s interpretations of the film – for that richness to reveal itself. However, even if it does not, I will hardly be disappointed. I think we all deserve a bracing blast of premium popcorn cinema about now.
A long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away: Palpatine died, Vader redeemed himself at the price of his life, the Death Star was destroyed, and the Empire was overthrown. But of course, Star Wars fans know there is no happily ever after: Sideous will be reborn, Ben Solo will take up the mantel of Vader, new planet killing weapons will be built and they will serve the First Order.
But even before all of that: what sort of world’s did the heroes of original trilogy create? That is the question the characters of the Mandalorian have to grapple with. They live in the gap between the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic, which is a space dominated by warlords and gangsters, where the Jedi are but a legend, and the choices necessary to survive preclude simple allegiance to either the light side or the dark.
This is an environment the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) appears well adapted to. He is perpetually encased in a helmet and armour, which literally and metaphorically separate him from the people around him – less ‘the Man with No Name’ than a man with no face.
He is a bounty hunter, and a formidable one at that, bound by a “Guild Code” which makes it taboo to ask the kind of questions which might lead to reflections on the morality of his line of work. That is until a client pays him to hunt down an unusual quarry and maintaining this amoral outlook becomes impossible.
It is glorious. Some of the best TV and the best Star Wars I have ever seen. Here are some of the reasons it works so well.
1. The music
This might seem like a random place to start but bear with me: it perfectly distils the feel of this series.
Each episode is scored by Ludwig Gorannson – who also wrote the orchestral music for Black Panther.
Now, Star Wars has always drawn inspiration from Westerns. So, it is natural for the Mandalorian to tell a story with the tropes and conventions of the Western genre set in the Star Wars universe. Gorannson’s music reflects this dual character, creating something which sounds like the product of a collaboration between John Williams and Ennio Morricone. It is luscious but also dripping with menace. It bears listening to all by itself.
Gorannson is far from the only very capable person working on the Mandalorian.
It is the first live action Star Wars TV show and it had pride of place in the virtual shop window of Disney + at its launch. So, the ‘House of Mouse’ has put a reported $100 million behind making it a success.
That allows for a cast featuring not only Pascal but also – amongst others – Giancarlo Esposito, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Ming-Na Wen, Richard Ayoade, Amy Sedaris, Nick Nolte – voicing a 3ft foot orange alien, which somehow still looks like Nick Nolte – and Werner Herzog. Yes, that Werner Herzog!
However, it is Pascal who is most impressive. He is not only depicting a character who is honour bound always to wear a helmet – meaning he has to depict the character without using his face – but also one who is modelled on the taciturn Clint Eastwoodesque cowboys, so he’s not got much dialogue either. Therefore, he has to lean heavily on physicality to create the character. Generally, when he makes a movement it is sharp and deliberate – an effect accentuated by the armour he’s wearing.
3. It looks phenomenal
Disney have also been able to attract Jon Favreau, the director of Iron Man and the Jungle Book, to co-write and act as showrunner, as well as directing several episodes. As you would expect given his pedigree – and the calibre of the other talent behind the camera – it looks fantastic. Better than a lot of the films. A succession of different planets and spaceships are lovingly rendered; CGI never looks like CGI and they have the capacity to put some impressive action set pieces on the screen convincingly.
Having invested in visuals, the filmmakers able to let them to do a lot of the storytelling. For example, at one point a simple turn of Mando’s helmet will convey that he has decided to take a mission. This style of course, suits the story’s protagonist.
It also provides a conspicuous contrast with a lot of sci-fi shows. The Mandalorian never subjects us to clunky dialogue that goes like: “ever since the War of the Two Planets, the Neptunium and Plutonian kings have been locked in a struggle for the heart of Rohana, the princess of Titan, a beautiful fish creature with a talent for lockpicking. Now in order to impress her, each man has sent a challenger to compete in the zoidbergaloid races of venus…”. (Or, perhaps worse still: “somehow, Palpatine returned”!)
It turns out that being rather spare with its dialogue makes for leaner storytelling that moves at a brisker pace and better episodes overall.
5. Excitement and tension
The action sequences in the Mandalorian take advantage of the possibilities provided by the Star Wars universe – among them droids, jet packs and tie-fighters – but can use them in ways that more align with its crunchier sensibility. For example, in the opening sequence the Mandalorian defeats an opponent by crushing them in a set of sliding blast doors.
These sequences benefit from being located in a notably nasty and unpredictable universe, where it seems well within the realms of possibility that something unpleasant could happen to characters we care about. That helps dial up the tension.
6. Baby Yoda
Let’s address the mudhorn in the room: Baby Yoda (or to give him his official name “the Child”) became an internet sensation for a reason. With his huge eyes, twitching ears and haphazard walk, he is quite possibly the cutest creature ever to emerge from sci-fi.
That might seem incongruous in an otherwise dark show. However, this mismatch is what makes him a narrative necessity. In a deeply corrupt part of the galaxy, his adorable wide-eyed innocence serves to upend the status quo.
7. Making sense of Star Wars
So far, it appears that in story terms the Mandalorian is at most perpendicular to the Skywalker saga, it does provide an important thematic connection between the original and the most recent trilogies. It depicts the continuing appeal of the Empire to some and, by extension perhaps, why there would be support the arrival of the First Order.
One of the villains asks our hero: “Look outside: is the world more peaceful since the revolution? I see nothing but death and chaos.” The seedy and violent worlds the show depicts, do not allow that point to be easily dismissed.
It not only shows us those who sympathise with the Empire but also those who distrust the democracy which has taken its place. An imperial army slaughtered the Mandalorian’s people, but it does not follow from this that he or the other victims of the old regime, we meet have faith in the democracy which has replaced it.
At one point, when he is clearly troubled by a particularly odious group of ne’er-do-wells, the head of the bounty hunter’s guild suggest with a complete lack of conviction: “well, if it bothers you, just go back to the core and report them to the New Republic”. The Mandalorian wearily dismisses that option as “a joke”. The Mandalorian thus depicts the sense that a tyranical order might be preferable to no order at all.
This marks a departure for Star Wars has generally shown the lure of the dark side from the point of view of characters for whom it offers incredible power. In the Mandalorian, we see its appeal from a different – and more relevant angle: that of those who see no realistic prospect of escaping the darkness, so hope that the right kind of darkness will grant them relief from a life of terror.
I have avoided revealing anything in this post that is not in the trailers or other pre-release publicity
A fan’s lament
I noticed myself noticing something whilst watching the Rise of Skywalker. Perhaps because it was mostly shot in the UK, a lot of minor roles are filled by actors who have played major parts in British TV shows. So, my brain would regularly be like “wasn’t that X-wing pilot a detective in Sherlock. Even in one of the film’s most emotionally charged moment, I was distracted by the realisation that a small but pivotal role was played by someone strongly associated with playing a very distinctive character, very different from the one they were depicting in the Rise of Skywalker.
Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’m enthusiastic about the direction the saga has taken in the Disney/Kathleen Kennedy era. I would have been so enraptured watching The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi, that something small like this wouldn’t really have registered to me. That I was taken out of the film by it, illustrates that the new film did not cast the same spell on me.
Sure, it was still entertaining: the cast of characters remains hugely likable, John Williams remains a genius and ILM continue to deliver a mic drop visual after mic drop visual. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed that the trilogy has ended this way.
The criticism I’ve seen made most frequently is that the pacing is rushed. Which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it feels like two films have been edited into one. If films are often praised for their ‘lean’ storytelling, then the Rise of Skywalker is emaciated. It has been cut back so viciously that the bones of the plot are largely stripped of character development, thematic depth or anything else that might put flesh on them. The relentless gallop through the narrative also robs the audience of slower moments where tension can build. The effect of this pace is alienating rather than invigorating.
These writing and editing issues are exasperated in the first act of the film by the filmmakers trying to incorporate unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot for the Force Awakens. I appreciate why giving one of the saga’s truly great characters (and the fantastic actor who played her) a proper send-off seemed important. However, taking dialogue from one film and trying to jam it into another is the wrong way to do it. It feels out of place in the film it’s now in. And the editing doesn’t cover the joints in a smooth way.
The perils of playing it safe
However, I want to suggest a more fundamental flaw with the Rise of Skywalker: Lucasfilm was too cautious.
In his book Messy, Tim Harford cites numerous incidents where measures intended as a safety feature actually become dangerous. For example, part of a safety valve in a nuclear reactor breaks loose and causes a blockage which leads to a meltdown. Or more mundanely an anxious public speaker is so anxious about not knowing what to say, that they cling to a carefully pre-prepared script rather than reading the room and wind up saying exactly the wrong thing.
I fear Lucasfilm took a risky precaution by deciding to go back to a trusted director. It is understandable why they did this: the studio has been repeatedly burned by taking risks on directors – including parting ways with the Rise of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow. In that context, rehiring JJ Abrams, the man who successfully delivered the saga’s relaunch in Force Awakens, must have seemed like a way to almost guarantee they would get a decent film.
However, that created a problematic dynamic. In contrast to their Disney compatriots at Marvel, Lucasfilm do not have a masterplan for how the story will unfold film-to-film. Instead, the writer/director of each entry in the saga improvises. Now, as anyone who improvises on stage or screen can tell you, it only works if you are prepared to accept and develop others’ contributions, the so-called “yes and…” principle. Rejecting them breaks the flow of the process.
Just such a break is created, by bringing back the director of the episode VII to direct episode IX. Abrams clearly had ideas about how the rest of the trilogy would pan out. Judging from the Rise of Skywalker those ideas seem to have differed substantially from what Rian Johnson actually did in episode VIII.
Rather than developing the story Johnson bequeathed him, Abrams instead seems to have tried to pull the saga back in the direction he initially intended: Characters introduced in the Last Jedi are ignored; whilst characters from Force Awakens often act in a way that seems at odds with what we learned about them in the previous film; and the previous film’s big reveal is retconned away. This isn’t even done in an intelligent way. Instead a character simply goes (to paraphase slightly): “When I said X (in the Last Jedi) that was actually sophistry. I really meant Y, which is the literal opposite”!
It also feels like Abrams drives forward with ideas, like the return of Palpatine as an antagonist, which because they were not seeded in Episode VIII seem to emerge from nowhere.
I also couldn’t escape the sense that Abrams had used up a lot of his ideas for action sequences in Force Awakens. So in the Rise of Skywalker, he resorts to making things bigger in a way that doesn’t turn out better. The combination of this drive for scale and the rushed editing, mean that a lot of the battles sequences become an uninteresting blur.
Let the past die – Kill it if you have to
Thus the very thing that probably most recommend Abrams to Lucasfilm, having successfully directed the Force Awakens, was actually the thing that made him the wrong director for the Rise of Skywalker. He did not have enough fresh ideas to contribute. Plus, his preconceived ideas about the saga’s direction clashed with the direction it actually took. This makes for a film that whilst not bad is jarring and uninspiring. It also points to a real danger for Lucasfilm or anyone else handling a long-running franchise. If you don’t take risks and tweak your formula, audiences will tire of seeing the same film repeated. For a franchise, too much caution is path which leads, sooner or later, to certain death.
“What about Finn and Rose’s big moment? As the former stormtrooper goes to make like Russell in Independence Day and destroy the First Order’s big blaster in an act of self-sacrifice, he’s knocked to safety by Rose. It’s a classic, shmaltzy deus ex machina, and it allows Rose to deliver a lovely thesis statement for the Rebellion and plant this trilogy’s first romantic kiss. But I can’t think of any precedent in the Star Wars movies for this particular kind of sacrifice to prevent sacrifice, with individual love nobly winning out over the collective mission.
Which speaks to the yet-grander innovation of The Last Jedi: finding ways to complicate and deepen the good vs. evil dichotomy. We see well-intentioned missions end in failure and catastrophe (Finn’s arc). We see sharp and consequential disagreements between people on the same side (Poe vs. Holdo). We see intense explorations of what it means for light and dark to flirt (Rey and Ren). And the long-troubling notion that a person’s significance is simply a product of heredity is vaporized with the reveal about Ray’s junktrading parents, cemented by a coda that sees a force-wielding slave kid dreaming of rebellion.”
“All of this serves to create a sense of shrinking rather than growing threat – a brave and slightly odd move for the middle chapter in a trilogy. The Last Jedi has unexpectedly sewn all kinds of plot threads up: Snoke’s gone, Luke nobly sacrificed himself, Rey has confronted her past. Yes, the Resistance’s numbers have been decimated, but the First Order has been dealt an even greater blow: its grand puppet master is dead, and in his place we have an aggressive hot-head and a military general so hapless that he could get his own sitcom (co-starring Adrian Edmondson, obviously). This raises the question: will the Resistance destroy the First Order, or will the First Order simply implode through mania and sheer incompetence?”
“In the Original Trilogy, Han is presented as the ultimate dude. In heteronormative terms, he is the character every man should want to be and every woman should want to be with. In The Last Jedi, Poe is presented as a character who needs to stop with the mansplaining and learn from the more seasoned female leaders in his life.
That’s not to say that Poe isn’t likeable. Both the film itself and the characters within the cinematic world admire Poe’s character, but, and here’s the kicker, not as a leader. At least not yet.
Instead, the film supports General Leia and Admiral Holdo and their measured maturity over Poe’s machismo-driven exuberance. “She cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero,” Leia tells Poe about Holdo’s sacrifice, subverting the tired narrative trend of the alpha male hero as the only viable or best leadership choice. “Not every problem can be solved by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing stuff up,” Leia tells Poe before demoting him. Skilled X-Wing piloting is a solution to some problems, sure, but for Poe to think his is a skillset that solves allproblems is pure hubris.”
[MM: on a related note ‘Emo Kylo Ren‘ has redubbed himself as a Ren’s Right Activist]
The Weekly Planet‘s discussion of the film is both funny and insightful. It also made me feel better about the ‘why didn’t Holdo just tell Poe problem’.
On Soundtracking, Edith Bowman interviews director Rian Johnson about what it’s like to work with John Williams. Short answer: very cool!
Star Wars Nerd #1: “Ive seen The Last Jedi 10 Times already.”
Star Wars Nerd #2: “Oh you can count, good for you.”
N.B: Unless you’re REALLY spoiler-phobic this post should be ok for you!
1 – I liked it a lot. It’s funny, exuberant and inventive. It’s the MCU turned up to 11.
2 – It is by far the best Thor film to date. A large scale purge of the supporting characters pays off. While obviously very accomplished as actors, the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard always seemed uncomfortable being in these films. Their replacements punch their way into Ragnarok already embracing their OTT camp glory. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie feels ready to join the main Avenger’s line-up from the get-go. And if we can see Taika Waititi’s Korg or Jeff Goldblum’s grandmaster again that would be great. Obviously that could be in another Thor sequel, but they both seem like they’d fit-in well in a GOTG adventure.
3 – Casting Cate Blanchett as the villain serves to illustrate the difference between a good actor and a great one. Marvel villains have generally been uninspiring. Even capable actors struggle to do much with their generic objectives and motivations, modest screentime and clunky dialogue. Blanchett doesn’t so much overcome those hurdles as devour them. The likes of Lee Pace and even Mads Mikkelsen struggle when their characters get into full flow: they need to deliver dire declamations with conviction, without seeming silly. Blanchett needn’t worry. Her performance is hammed up to a level beyond the pantomime, but even at Hela’s most overwrought, Blachett inhabits her, such that you never wind up questioning, a character who on even cursory examination is totally ludicrous. This video illustrates the point rather well.
4 – Ragnarok has a decidedly antipodean flavour. It was filmed in Australia, its director is a Kiwi, and much of the cast is from that part of the world. That helps make it feel distinct from the rest of the MCU. I felt that was reflected in a humour that’s a bit looser and more than the hyperverbal Whedony quipping you get in most Marvel movies. Not that I mind hyperverbal Whedony quipping, but some variety is pleasant. [Edit: put it this way. Marvel dialogue is generally very coffee. Ragnarok is more larger]
5 – The synth heavy score is exactly what this movie needs.
6 – If I had to find fault with Ragnarok, I would be point-out that:
he action scenes look cool but nothing more. I never really became invested in what was happening in them. Instead I’d enjoy the spectacle whilst waiting to return to the characters interacting entertainingly.
It takes about 20 mins to really click into gear. Doctor Strange’s inclusion felt unearned.
Idris Elba remains chronically underused, and Hiddleston feels sidelined to an extent that is suprising given the popularity of his character.
But honestly, I was having a riot, so none of this really bothered me.
7 – I am conflicted about the trailers. They stepped on many of the best moments, but were also really entertaining in their own right.
It’s good. Really good. Better than the original, in fact. It has the same haunting, unsettling quality. The same feeling of a universe that is lived in. The same ability to provoke uncomfortable questions. And visuals that are if anything even more stunning. Yet it also improves on it. The narrative has a clearer direction, the pacing is tighter and more even, and there are shorter gaps between action scenes. That adds to the excitement without detracting from anything else.
Notwithstanding point 1, I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 will become an icon in the same way as its predecessor. That is partly an inevitable result of the fact that Blade Runner’s influence is now bakedintopopular culture. Blade Runner 2049 was never going to be able to execute a similar paradigm shift, because the very fact it is a sequel means it operates within an existing paradigm. Therefore, it cannot become the same kind of landmark in film history.
That said I think 2049 lacks something else that made the first one a classic, and it’s something it – at least in theory – could have delivered. The reason why one film becomes an icon and another doesn’t is generally not their totality. We cannot remember a whole film. Instead what stays with us is usually their most compelling moments. So, an icon status often stems from particular scenes. The kind that get seared in your brain if you’ve seen them and feel familiar even if you haven’t. It also helps if they have dialogue you can quote. The first Blade Runner absolutely had that in the final rooftop confrontation between Deckard and Roy Batty. I don’t think 2049 does. That said, this is one of those things where we have to wait for time to tell, before saying for certain. After all, Blade Runner initially appeared to have fallen flat, and only came to be viewed as a classic later. Maybe on reflection, one moment of 2049 will come to sum up the brilliance of the whole film. I’m not sure though.
Denis Villeneuve seems a lot like the new Christopher Nolan. That’s partly because their films look similar and have similar tones. More importantly, however, they both make smart, complicated, thought provoking pieces of art that work for a mass audience.
I also sense that we’ve yet to see Villeneuve’s Dark Knight or Dunkirk. I await that masterpiece with barely contained excitement.
I regret that Jóhann Jóhannsson didn’t get to score it. Hans Zimmer does perfectly good work but it is very much what we’ve come to expect from him and his imitators. Villeneuve and Jóhannsson seem to have a Spielberg/Williams (and indeed Nolan/Zimmer) style synergy and I suspect that them working together again might have produced something more memorable.
This is a rare film that uses the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope without indulging it. It is not only conscious of the fact that the idea is creepy but consciously uses it.
2049’s being released just months after the very Blade Runnery live action remake of Ghost in the Shell does underline how much of a failure that film was. Mr Sunday Movies accurately described it as ‘the poor man’s Blade Runner, and also the poor man’s Ghost in the Shell’.
Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld (TV series) would make great companion pieces. They have similar themes and a shared ambition, but a different approach and feel.
Today I’m moving from this moral argument to discussing the merits of his run on Doctor Who as art and entertainment. Here I feel able to offer a far more fulsome defence.
I realise that puts me in a minority and the weight of opinion among viewers is that the show got worse when Moffat replaced Russell T. Davies. Before I unfurl my argument against that position, please allow me to acknowledge it has points in its favour.
The Davies era has a lot to commend it. For starters, it brought the Dr Who back. It has some indisputably great episodes like Blink and Midnight. It also had a vibrancy that the show’s struggled to regain since. And Tennant’s charisma allowed the show to blast past points where the writing and directing were rather weak.*
Conversely, what has come since has had its flaws. Moffat’s difficulty writing convincing female characters is lamentable not only in and of itself but because it prevented him nailing certain arcs, in particular River Song’s. And while Smith is an impressive actor and a capable Doctor, he wasn’t the right muse for Moffat. This may be why the show felt very tired by the time Smith’s final series ended. Fortunately, the 50th anniversary and Capaldi’s arrival rejuvenated it.
Nonetheless, for my money Moffat’s tenure – and especially the two series with Capaldi in the lead – are Who at its best. They represent the show rising to the challenge of existing during ‘the golden age of television’. It became bolder, darker and more ambitious. That arguably made it a worse fit for casual family viewing on a Saturday evening – which may partially explain falling domestic audiences. But the swing to that roundabout was that it became a true global hit. And the two most recent series are the first time one could objectively argue the show matched up to the best Sci-fi and fantasy TV produced in the US.
The most obvious sign of this was Moffat allowing story arcs to become more complicated. Indeed, it’s arguable that the Davies era series did not have proper plot arcs at all. Character arcs yes; the Doctor and the companions evolve in ways that can only be fully perceived when one views a series as a whole. But there’s little sense of a plot growing across multiple episodes. True there would often be some hint as to the two-part finale written into earlier episodes. But oblique mentions of ‘Torchwood’ or ‘Harold Saxon’ are foreshadowing rather than narrative developments for the simple reason that they don’t actually develop.
Moffat’s decision to move away from that approach and embrace more densely textured arcs is the most frequently criticised aspect of his work. It is probably true that it alienates occasional viewers. But if a writer assumes that their viewers are invested in the show – watching it regularly and paying attention – then they can repay that investment. The arcs allowed for mysteries that had time to mature and could be mulled over between episodes. There’s also the gratifying moment when – like a gymnast landing gracefully after an impossible pirouette – Moffat ties what look like a mess of random threads into a convincing and surprisingly neat bow. That was true even of the otherwise disappointing series 7. The finale on Trenzalore brought together the ‘impossible girl’, ‘great intelligence’ and ‘name of the Doctor’ storylines in a surprisingly natural, economic and affecting way. And then on top of all of it provided a cliffhanger to lure us into the 50th anniversary.
That hints at another strength of the Moffat era: reliability. While Smith was the Doctor there were a fair number of bad episodes – indeed the one with the pirates is arguably the worst of all – but when it really counted the episodes would be good. The first one would start as you hoped it would go on, mid-season cliffhangers left you intrigued, and finales ended on a high note. Contrast that with, say, a muddled load of nonsense about the Daleks dragging planets through space in order to power a bomb that destroys the universe. And in the Capaldi era things have gotten better still: they’ve stopped making bad episodes. Sure there are mediocre ones like Kill the Moon but they all have something to like about them.
And that’s not the only way the show has improved recently. It’s become more experimental, trying out everything from one handers to episodes that play in cinemas. Not only is this ability to regenerate itself – geddit! – essential for a show going into its tenth season but these high concept episodes are often the most impressive. OK, Sleep No More didn’t really work but look back to Blink or Midnight, or more recently Heaven Sent. I look forward to seeing how the status quo is upended in Moffat’s final series.
Equally important has been the shift in tone. For all their success, Davies’s series often mistook goofiness for charm, and melodrama for emotion. Moffat’s Who has a more otherwordly feel: more like rich, resonant and dark fairytales than anything else. Sadder and scarier, with a more elusive appeal that was all the greater when you found it. Which, if you ask me, is what the tales of travellers through space and time should be like.
*It’s not really a point that needs making for the argument I’m making here but Davies was commendably committed to equal on-screen representation. The show has become lamentably whiter, straighter and more male since Moffat took over.
In online geekdom, the reaction to Friday’s news that the next series of Doctor Who would be his last was reminiscent of the bit at the end of The Return of the Jedi, where all the Ewoks start dancing. A substantial chunk of the fandom wasn’t just happy Moffat was going, they were crowing: it was less like a TV writer changing jobs and more akin to the fall of a dictatorship.
Cleary the nub of this is that many people think the show has gotten worse since Moffat took over showrunner. But if that was all there was to it then I doubt the criticisms of him would be quite so ardent and personal.
Elledge’s theory appears to be that the problem is that Moffat comes across as prickly and condescending in public appearances. That probably doesn’t help but I think that’s not quite it. Being able to warm to someone who’s prickly and condescending is after all a precondition for being a fan of a show whose central character is an often overbearing god like creature.
I’m not prepared to follow Elledge in dismissing Moffat’s habit of making comments about women that are some combination of boorish, demeaning and stupid simply as a communication error. It is that but it’s also a substantive problem. Someone in a position of power both in the workplace and in popular culture should be not be saying things like:
There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.
You tend not to find anything that crude in his writing. Nonetheless, a kind of ‘everyday sexism’ permeates his work. Taken individually his female characters are admirably strong and capable. But taken together they start to look like a collection of either fantasies or jokes rather rounded human beings. And it’s rare for them to attain the depth or complexity of their male counterparts.
Compare, for example, Rory and Amy. His character is very well drawn and it’s genuinely moving to see the steal emerge from inside a man who initially seems a bit of a wet blanket. But despite having more screen time and a bigger role in the plot Amy has nothing like that. She’s as generically feisty in her final episode as in her first.
The most credible defence of Moffat that can be offered on this point is that:
…you can genuinely see him responding to his critics. He didn’t cast a female Doctor (and thank god, given how he writes women); but he did cast a female Master, and he’s repeatedly established that a female Doctor would make perfect sense within the fiction.
The change goes broader than that. Writing female characters remains one of Moffat’s weaknesses but he has definitely gotten better of late. Clara’s initial arc was terrible: she was little more than a problem to be solved. But in the next two series she was given space to develop to the point where she was as near to the Doctor’s equal as any human is ever going to be. She can pass for him, call him out when he’s in the wrong, and eventually sets off in a TARDIS for adventures of her own. Most importantly by having Clara’s exit flip the dynamics of Donna’s, Moffat acknowledged that the show has often mistreated its female characters. Sure you can dispute whether Moffat is in any position to lecture Russell T. Davies on feminism, and he still screws ups with things like giving Clara a controlling dick of boyfriend who no one ever seems to notice is a controlling dick. That kind of thing is undoubtedly a step backward but it seems like there have been more steps forward in Moffat’s recent work.
There’s of course, no one individual empowered to forgive sins against women. And if there was it would not be a man. And there’s certainly an argument that he doesn’t deserve it. The women in his stories have gotten better but that doesn’t make them good. He’s arguably only done that under pressure of public slating. And I have no idea whether he’s making the same kind of efforts as an employer and a public figure that he is as a writer. Nonetheless, any evaluation of him does at least need to acknowledge these efforts.
Fortunately, 2012 does not look like an anomaly. The trend has been moving in the right direction for a while now. Star Wars itself was one of the first signs of this. The frankly rather weird golden bikini scene in Return of the Jedi not withstand, Princess Leia was much tougher and more resourceful than the average female sci-fi character. She was allowed to, for example, take charge of her own rescue from the Death Star. She forms one of sci-fi’s triumvirate of iconic strong female characters: the others being Ripley and Sarah Connor. They were important characters not just in on and of themselves but as reference points for future writers looking to create tough female characters – indeed Riply and Alien probably only got made because of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. But these three characters were only a first step. They were still tiny minorities in their films cast. And only Ripley was a protagonist; Leia and Sarah Connor still fitted into the traditional love interest/damsel in distress role albeit in a decidedly non-traditional way.
More recently this trend seems to have accelerated dramatically. Women have moved from being supporting to lead characters. They save the day and may be helped or hindered in that mission by male supporting characters. The Hunger Games is probably the most prominent example of this but it extends to its imitators and now even into superhero films a domain in which there’s previously been great resistance to female leads. Ripley no longer seems so singular.
And fittingly the franchise that gave us Princess Leia has now joined that trend. When the Force Awakens begins it doesn’t seem that way. It first looks like Oscar Isaac’s dashing fighter pilot will be the hero. Then it appears to be Finn – the renegade stormtrooper played by John Boyega. But then Rey and Finn meet for the first time and it becomes clear that Abrams and Lucasfilm are doing something else.
Obviously the fact that such a massive franchise has as its two leads a woman and a person of colour is encouraging.* But what caught my attention was the film having a joke at Finn’s expense for mansplaining. He initially spots Rey as she is struggling with two thugs trying to steal BB8 and he rushes over to help. But before he gets there she’s already put her opponents on the floor. Then when stormtroopers show up and start blasting, he grabs her hand to dash away. This leads her to object that she “knows how to run” and it becomes apparent that his holding onto her is actually slowing them down. Then when Tie Fighters start attacking them from the air, she then has to lead him to the ship that will take them to safety!
I liked this scene because of its subtlety. Of late there’s been a lot of talk of ‘Everyday Sexism’. This seemed like an example of Everyday Equality. It wasn’t showy, preachy or given much weight but it nonetheless still made a point about the daftness of a man assuming a woman isn’t as capable as you are. And where better to place that than in a film with a disproportionate appeal to boys!
As the films progresses, it becomes an apparent that Rey is the hero and Finn is the love interest. She defeats Kylo Renn not him and in the final scene she’s the one who goes off to become a Jedi. But apart from the scene I describe above her being the hero and a woman is not really stressed. The film doesn’t high-five itself for having a female lead. It’s treated as normal – as someday it hopefully will be.
Indeed, I would suggest that Rey is excellently placed to be a role model for young fans. In contrast to the heroine of the original trilogy she’s not a princess but a very ordinary person – a scrap metal scavenger in fact – which should make her more relatable. I also imagine that she will ultimately be more impactful in this regard than the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. That’s partly a function of the fact that Star Wars reaches children whereas the darker Hunger Games is not called ‘young adult’ for nothing. And Katniss is sometimes a difficult character to like – which is both intentional and a valid depiction of someone dealing with trauma. But nonetheless more people are probably are going to wind up dressing up as the more consistently appealing Rey.
My sense is that we’ve now probably reached a tipping point with female heroes. The Hunger Games has demonstrated beyond doubt that have a women in a lead role is not going to scare away audiences. Indeed, surprise surprise if casting choices don’t send women and girls subliminal messages that genre films aren’t for them, then they will start watching them and thereby grow the studio’s revenues. An observation that’s going to become all the more obvious if, as seems quite possible, the Force Awakens goes on to become the highest grossing movie of all time.
I suspect that therefore the battles for feminists going forward will be on slightly different terrain. Firstly, there’s the question of what kind of female heroes Hollywood gives. Katniss and Rey are encouraging examples. But there are more concerning ones. In particular, the year’s other super huge hit at the US box office, Jurassic World took its heroine on an appropriately prehistoric journey. Through confrontations with dinosaurs, children and Chris Pratt’s macho man she discovers that despite her successful career she was a failure as a woman on account of her lack of procreation. Given that the audience probably didn’t notice she was the lead and that the Pratt centric marketing campaign did nothing to point it out to them, this example probably won’t way too heavily on producer’s minds. But nonetheless it is something to be vigilant for.
The next big step will I suspect be to start casting women in a wider and less clichéd selection of supporting roles. There are signs of this in the Force Awakens. We see a woman playing a menacing commander of the First Order and another mo caps the wizened voice of history. And of Carrie Fisher is now playing not Princess but General Leia. Nonetheless, when it comes to roles like villains, soldiers, mentors, thugs etc choosing men still seems to be the reflexive choice of casting directors. As long as that continues we will see many great female characters submerged in otherwise heavily male casts.
Nonetheless, the Force Awakens is clearly a step forward. It creates space for women both in its lead role and in supporting ones beyond those that would traditionally be given to women. And it allows those characters to be proper characters rather than stand-ins for their gender. I therefore think it is not only a good film but a film that will hopefully do good as well.
Note: At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m a man writing about the depiction of women. I don’t think that’s something men shouldn’t do – clearly because if I did I wouldn’t have – but it does mean that even more than usual this post is subject to someone coming along with a better arguments.
*If we count Oscar Isaacs – who’s Hispanic – as the third lead then even more encouragingly it’s a woman and two people of colour.