Series Saturday: VICIOUS

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

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Warning: Mild Spoilers Ahead (Yes, for a sitcom.)

Vicious didn’t last long, but I think it’s possibly in my Top 5 favorite sit-coms. Had it had more episodes per season or lasted longer, my opinion might have changed. But the short, sweet run it had (14 episodes over a three-year span, including the extra-long Finale) was I think just enough to fall in love with these bitter, snarking characters and not grow tired of them.

Created by Gary Janetti and Mark Ravenhill, Vicious originally aired in the UK before making its way to the United States on PBS, which is where I saw the first season and bits of the second. I bought the DVDs to watch the episodes my DVR had somehow failed to record (including the Finale). Because of course I did. The series focuses on Freddie (Sir Ian McKellan) and Stuart (Sir Derek Jacobi), a couple who have been together for forty-eight years at the start of the first season. In short order, they (and we) meet their new, cute-as-a-button, young upstairs neighbor Ash (Iwan Rheon) and the speculation starts as to whether the young man is “family” or not (Spoiler: he’s not.). Freddie and Stuart’s lifelong friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) also takes a shine to Ash, although the couple’s other close friends, absent-minded Penelope (Marcia Warren) and acerbic Mason (Philip Voss) don’t seem quite so enamored of Ash at first.

The first season feels the freshest and most tightly written, perhaps because the writers are so invested in getting us to understand the characters and their relationships that they wrote seven mostly stand-alone episodes. Other than Ash being drawn more completely into the older characters’ circle, there’s no real “season arc” to speak of. Each episode sets up a situation, hits certain expected moments, and resolves by episode’s end. The running joke of Stuart constantly reintroducing Ash to Violet (“You remember our friend Violet,” often delivered as though the two have never met before) is the closest the writers come to a situation that lasts several episodes and then is resolved in the season finale. Season Two’s more structured lead-up to Freddie and Stuart’s wedding after fifty years together, coupled with a change in episode structure (every episode of season one started with Stuart on the phone with his mother and some Freddie-Stuart ribbing; season two’s episodes start with the two conversing as they walk down the street and something about the on-location filming feels out of place to me) makes the season feel less improvised and thus less fresh. There are still wonderful moments of comedy and character development, but there’s a lot of run-of-the-mill dialogue and situational slapstick as well (I’m looking at you, Mason, Penelope and the wedding cake!).

Both leads deliver their quips with just enough of a wink that the viewers understand these are two men who have developed a verbal shorthand where almost everything they say means “I love you and I wouldn’t change you for the world.” Relationship-wise, it’s clear that Freddie is a bit more dominant, Stuart a bit more submissive – and when the writers reverse the relationship (for instance, in the season two opener, when Freddie has to play subservient butler to a “straight, macho” Stuart to help Violet during a visit from her condescending sister), the writing is at its best. It helps that Sir Ian and Sir Derek obviously enjoy feeding off of each other’s energy, and one has to wonder how much of their banter was ad-libbed. (I also think it’s interesting that Sir Ian says they each had crushes on the other during early acting school days, but neither ever confessed to the other. I wonder what having them as the First Gay Couple of British Theater in real life would have been like.)

The characters’ styles are very different as well. In both dress and personality, Freddie is a bit haughty, Stuart more demure. Stuart wants to be liked/loved, while Freddie just assumes he is. They are both capable of delivering a cutting bon-mot towards their friends, however, and sometimes seem gleeful in inflicting pain. I do wish we’d seen more of what brought these five people together and just a hint more of the love they feel for each other; it’s the one true negative about the lead characters. Sure, in the season two wedding episode, they show some affection – but there’s a lot of dismissiveness and derision before that point. One starts to wonder why Violet, Penelope and Mason have hung around for so long. (Frances de la Tour has a great moment of honesty with Ash in the Finale on this very topic, but it reads as a bit too little too late despite how very good she is in the scene.) Every so often, one of the three scores some equally cutting points on the two leads (Penelope in particular).

And while Violet is pretty well developed over the course the two seasons (de la Tour’s boozier and more lascivious line reads and sub-plots made me wish this show had done a crossover with Absolutely Fabulous), Penelope and Mason fare less well. In the second season we get a bit more of a sense of Penelope’s life and the brave face she’s putting on (Marcia Warren is brilliant in those scenes, most particularly in the ballroom dancing episode and the Finale), but the reveal that Mason is actually Freddie’s younger brother is the definition of a throw-away line for shock’s sake, as is the line about Mason also being gay. Philip Voss does the best with what he’s given, but he’s given the least of the series regulars to work with until the Finale when he has a poignant exchange with Penelope about being there for her to the end, and an almost-poignant moment with Freddie over a good memory from their apparently otherwise horrific childhood.

Then there’s Ash, the young innocent thrust into this biting, sarcastic, awkward family unit. I think it’s a credit to Iwan Rheon and the writers that the character never loses than innocence, never really takes on Freddie and Stuart’s way of interacting with others (except in one episode, with disastrous results). Even though Ash is straight, this consistency in his character points up a generational difference: the biting humor of the old queens doesn’t quite work in younger relationships. Unfortunately, there are a few episodes where the writers decide that innocent = goofy/stupid, especially in season two and the early parts of the Finale. It’s a tendency lots of sitcoms fall into, making the innocence or good-nature of a character too broad. In another example the show subverting expected tropes, it’s not the old gay men who slobber over Ash (or, more common, old straight men making lewd suggestive comments to a beautiful young woman), but their friend Violet. The Violet-Ash dynamic is the second most interesting relationship in the show, but the writers show a remarkable restraint in just how far they let it go before resolving the tension.

In the end, for me it really comes down to my enjoyment of watching three great older actors (McKellan, Jacobi, and de la Tour) work their craft, and watch an at the time relative newcomer hold his own with them.

Check out Vicious on DVD or streaming if you like: sitcoms that center gay characters; snarky humor with an undercurrent of love; watching a group of old professionals knock it out of the park; Iwan Rheon not playing a Bastard (yes, that’s a Game of Thrones reference).

Series Saturday: the SPIRITS trilogy

Series Saturday is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

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Jordan L. Hawk is a non-binary, queer and very prolific writer of M/M supernatural romance series, including the Whyborne & Griffin books (Lovecraftian in tone, and coming to a conclusion later this year), Hexworld (alternate history NYC where magic, and shape-shifters, abound), SPECTR (modern-day vampires and ghosts), and the Spirits trilogy, which is what I’d like to talk about today.

The Spirits books (Restless Spirits, Dangerous Spirits and Guardian Spirits) take place in a slightly-alternate history America at the turn of the previous century, wherein everyone knows spirits, and thus hauntings, are real. Some spirits are friendly, or at least essentially harmless, but some can and will cause great harm. As can, and do, people who pretend to be talented mediums but who are really just fakers.

Enter Henry Strauss, a scientist who was misled and taken advantage of by a fraudulent medium when he was younger. Henry’s goal is to reduce the odds of people being taken advantage of by using scientific means to locate, attract, and ultimately remove the threat of, ghosts. His Electro-Séance does the trick, if he can get it to work correctly and convince people like the Psychical Society of Baltimore that it’s more reliable and effective than human mediums. Henry, and his assistant/cousin Jo, get their chance when they are invited by a wealthy industrialist to a de-haunt a house in upstate New York – in competition with a renowned medium, Vincent Night, and his partner Lizzie. The industrialist is pitting science against spiritualism, but Henry and Vincent feel an immediate attraction to each other. Complications (and a little bit of hilarity and sexual shenanigans) ensue.

The “science versus spiritualism” competition is really only a part of the plot of the first book, and the rest of the trilogy finds Henry and Vincent working together on cases that appear to be distinct but in fact lead to revelations about Vincent and Lizzie’s pasts and a threat to the whole world.

There are certain things one expects from a Jordan L. Hawk historical series:

·         Two engaging, but quite insecure in different ways, male leads (and chapters that alternate point of view between the two)

·         A slow-burn romance in the first book, but insecurity-driven misunderstandings even once they do get together

·         Steamy sex featuring those male leads, multiple times per book, although the number of scenes per book usually decreases the longer the series goes on

·         A diverse supporting cast

·         A well-developed world with internal logic to how the supernatural element works and consistency in whether the general public knows about/believes in the supernatural or not

·         High stakes (often life-or-death) for the characters, but also for the world or society they live in.

 

 But here’s the thing: Hawk’s books don’t feel formulaic even with all of these consistent elements. And each series, thanks to that intricate world-building and thanks to the variety of lead characters, feels different from the others.

The Spirits trilogy maintains its focus on ghosts/spirits, and eschews any other form of the supernatural. No werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, or cosmic horrors. Just spirits and the people with the ability/talent to communicate with and affect them. Vincent Night is a medium (he can speak to spirits and spirits can speak/act through him). Lizzie Devereaux is a spirit-writer. Other supporting characters are sensitive in one way or another. And then there’s Henry, who wants to do what Vincent does through science, specifically electromagnetism, instead of spiritualism. But there’s nary a hint of other magic in the books at all, and that’s refreshing. (Even though I’ve joked with the author on social media about a story where Henry and Vincent meet my favorite Hawk characters, Whyborne and Griffin, it’s clear that these series are set in the same time-period but very different versions of “our world.”) This trilogy is an ongoing debate on science versus spirituality (or, if you’d like, science versus religion/belief), but the author at no point allows one to best the other. There’s a trend out there right now in fantasy novels for magic to work the way science does – rigid rules of use and conduct and cause-and-effect – and Hawk refreshingly doesn’t use science to explain the spiritual nor use the spiritual to justify the science.

As with many of Hawk’s romantic pairs, Henry and Vincent are a study in contrasts. Henry is literal in his approach, not prone to expressions of humor, insecure because people just don’t want to believe in his achievements (the reader sees right away that Henry’s device works, although imperfectly) and also because of the way he was taken advantage of as a young man (by a medium claiming to be speaking for his father without really doing so). Vincent is a bit more poetic, swaggering (but not overbearing) to hide his own insecurities which are based in his failure during a séance which led to his mentor’s death and in the fact people don’t want to believe he’s as intelligent as he is because he’s Native American. The attraction between the two is immediate (and acted on fairly quickly, if awkwardly). Their position as rivals for a big cash prize (which each needs to save their own business and keep themselves and their partners with food and shelter) is just the first road-block of many thrown in front of them by the author. But they do persevere and grow towards a happy relationship. (No unhappy endings or “murder your gays” tropes to be had in a Jordan Hawk book!) Although it’s never expressed in quite this way, what the men have in common is a loss of fathers via “possession.” Vincent was possessed by a malevolent spirit which killed his mentor/father-figure while in Vincent’s body, and Henry was “possessed” by the fraudulent medium who took advantage of Henry’s attraction and guilelessness to steal Henry’s inheritance away from him. Both of these possessions haunt the men, and affect not only their relationship with each other but with their friends. Vincent’s fear of being possessed again holds him back from holding the séances needed to keep his and Lizzie’s business open; Henry’s anger at being taken advantage of makes it difficult for him to compromise with the people he needs to make his business a success.

This may be the most diverse main cast of all of Hawk’s historicals, both in terms of ethnicity and gender, and that’s saying something. While Henry is a gay white man, Vincent is Native American, Jo is mixed-race (the child of Henry’s white uncle and a black servant), and Lizzie is transgender. Since the Spirits trilogy is primarily M/M romance, it would be easy to relegate Jo and Lizzie to the status of “secondary characters” but they really aren’t. They have their own character arcs and contribute to the successful resolution of the potentially world-shattering events they are taking part in, and they do get their own romantic sub-plots – they just don’t get any sex scenes.

And if that’s not a perfect segue, nothing is. As mentioned, it wouldn’t be a Hawk book without increasingly hot (even when they’re awkward) sex scenes between the leads. These scenes also tend to be lovingly romantic. But they are certainly not for the prudish. (I think the books read just as well without the explicit sex, but as the sex is part of what Hawk (as well as KJ Charles, Adam Carpenter, and other authors I enjoy) is known for, I can’t complain about their inclusion – and certainly can’t claim that they’re not well-written.

The trilogy tells a complete story, over the course of three interesting hauntings and along with a variety of sub-plots. I’m sure there’s much more that could be explored in this world and with these characters, but for now the author says the story is finished. (Maybe they’ll decide to revisit this world now that the long-running Whyborne & Griffin series is drawing to a close?)

Check out Jordan L. Hawk’s Spirits trilogy if you like: ghost stories, séances, M/M romance, diverse and well-written casts, and subtle, supernatural-based alternate history.

Series Saturday: Planet of the Apes TV Show

This is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

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The Planet of the Apes television series aired from September to December, 1974, cancelled mid-season with 14 episodes filmed but only 13 aired (although there seems to be some debate on which episode failed to make it to air). As much of a Planet of the Apes fan as my father was, I’m almost positive we watched these episodes when they originally aired, but being all of 10 years old at the time, my memories are vague; I have much clearer memories of seeing these episodes in the 80s, after they’d been re-cut into five (increasingly horribly named) movies for syndication. I even remember the framing device with Roddy McDowell as an older Galen, which apparently only were used when the movies aired on ABC affiliates on weekday afternoons. (These framing bits are sadly not on the DVD release. Perhaps for the best, as it leaves Virdon and Burke’s ultimate fate as described in the framing bits non-canonical. Not that anyone is likely to revisit this in live-action form…)

I of course followed up my recent re-watch of the original movie franchise with a re-watch of the TV series (and I’m intending to re-watch the Filmation animated series soon-ish). In some ways it was exactly as I remembered it: mostly fun, a bit over-acted, a bit formulaic, and with very little obvious connection to the movies.

The set-up, much like the first two movies in the franchise, is that astronauts Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) crash-land on what they think is an Earth-like planet (losing their only other shipmate in the process) where Apes are the ruling class and Humans are basically well-treated slaves with an occasional veneer of autonomy. They figure out pretty quickly that they have actually landed on Earth in the future (something the viewing audience already knew, so why keep the characters in the dark?) Hunted by council president Zaius (Booth Colman) and General Urko (Mark Lenard), they go on the run with sympathetic and inquisitive chimp Galen (Roddy McDowell).  Along the way they teach humans to want freedom, convince some apes (usually chimpanzees like Galen) that the current system is unjust, and have really awkward fight scenes with lots of gorillas.

Characterization is mostly one-dimensional, although the four leads (I include Mark Lenard as he appeared in almost all the episodes filmed) do their best with what they’re given. I’d like to think that if they’d run a full season or longer, the characterizations would have gotten a little deeper – but this was still the early 70s, when each character in an ensemble cast filled a particular function. Virdon is the home-spun leader; Burke is the ladies’ man (although he only gets one one-off unrequited romance, with a blind ape, compared to Virdon’s two with humans); Galen is the inquisitive, naïve one. Booth Colman’s Zaius, similar to Maurice Evans in the first two movies, knows more about the past than he’s willing to admit to anyone (the show of course never addresses whether Colman’s Zaius is an ancestor of Evans’), while Lenard’s Urko falls somewhere between the implied military clearheadedness of James Gregory’s Ursus (in Beneath) and the simpleminded buffoonery of Claude Akins’ Aldo (in Battle) – it really depended on the scriptwriter that week. While there are many actors who return in bit-parts over the run, only John Hoyt (the Star Trek OS doctor before Bones) recurs as the same ape, Prefect Barlow, in two episodes. It is interesting to note that Bobby Porter, who played Caesar’s son in Battle, plays two different ape pre-teens on the TV show. (It’s a shame they didn’t let him play a human in at least one episode.)

Other major differences from the movies: The setting is clearly the northern California coast (with visits to “San Francisco” and “Oakland” ruins, and several very clear, if crude, wall-maps) as opposed to what turned out to be New York / New Jersey in the movies, a shift undoubtedly made because the show was filmed on backlots and in the hills outside Los Angeles. The time is a few centuries before the events of the first two movies but well after the events of Battle for the Planet of the Apes: humans are not completely mute uncivilized pack-animals as seen in the first two movies, but they don’t have near the autonomy implied by the end of Battle. And the majority of the episodes are formulaic in a way the movies never quite were.

That formula was basically: The Trio get comfortable hiding with a human family/community (occasionally a sympathetic ape family as in “The Good Seeds”), something happens to alert a gorilla patrol or local garrison to their presence, there’s a fight or two, and the Trio moves on (usually just ahead of Urko) rather than endanger their new friends. Two episodes (“The Trap” and “The Legacy”) take place in the ruins of human cities that clearly show we’re in the future of Earth, and each involve Urko somehow learning-but-not-learning that Humans used to rule over Apes. “The Legacy” also implies that there are other still-functioning but hidden computers out there that could enable Virdon and Burke to return home. (It’s never clearly stated, but I think one must presume that their mission launched after Taylor’s and Brent’s missions, but before Cornelius, Zira, and Milo arrive in the past; otherwise why would Virdon and Burke be so surprised at the Ape-Human reversal?) But other than those two episodes, the settings for each episode are rural areas usually “a day or more hard ride” from Central City, where Zaius and Urko are headquartered.

More than half of the episodes stick to the formula and eschew both deeper world-building and heavy-handed political commentary. But there are a few episodes that must have felt topical/controversial at the time and still do (although rather heavy-handed in execution). In the final filmed episode, “Up Above The World So High,” a human figures out how to make a working glider and a female chimp decides to use it for terrorist attacks against Zaius’ council regime. In “The Cure,” the Council considers the genocide of a human compound to prevent the spread of a unknown fatal disease while “The Liberator” features a human enclave ready to use gas-bombs to wipe out the apes. “The Interrogation” focuses on the Apes re-learning old human torture techniques, and “The Deception” has the Trio facing off against KKK-like masked ape “dragoons” bent on keeping the “animal” humans down.

There are a lot of recognizable faces (or at least, recognizable names attached to ape make-up) among the guest stars: a pre-Bad New Bears Jackie Earle Haley, a pre-Beastmaster Marc Singer, a very-pre-Hill Street Blues Michael Conrad. The aforementioned John Hoyt is among then-veteran character actors like Royal Dano, Roscoe Lee Browne, Martin E. Brooks and John Ireland and femme fatales Beverly Garland and Sondra Locke.

An additional six scripts were written but never filmed. Interestingly, the original pilot and second episode were written by Rod Serling but rejected and never filmed. Some of these scripts are available online (including the Serlings) but I’ve yet to read them.

The show’s failure is largely blamed on its time-slot competition (popular comedies Sanford & Son and Chico & The Man), but I have to wonder if the show would have been more successful had it been green-lit and aired during the height of the original movie franchise’s popularity as opposed to after that popularity had begun to wane. Then again, had they been filmed concurrently, I doubt Roddy McDowell would have done the show. And I can’t imagine caring as much without his endearing, if sometimes infuriating, Galen at the center of things.

SERIES SATURDAY: The original Planet of the Apes franchise

This is a series about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

 

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I have no idea which of the original Planet of the Apes movies I saw first.

Given that they were released in theaters between 1968 and 1973, when I was at the tender ages of two through seven, I definitely encountered them on television. In the mid-70s through mid-80s, New York City-area television stations WNYW (Channel 5), WWOR (Channel 9) and WPIX (Channel 11), all then local and not network-affiliated, aired a wonderful weekend mix of genre and genre-adjacent movies: everything from the Apes to Japanese kaiju to wire-fu martial arts to classic Universal monsters to Abbott and Costello and the Bowery Boys. Somewhere in that mix, I encountered the original Planet of the Apes franchise. I may have seen them in release order or haphazardly. I may even have seen episodes of the live-action 1974 television series before any of the original movies, since the TV episodes were chopped and combined in 1981 into five two-hour “movie” presentations (but the TV series is a discussion for a different post).

Whatever order I saw the movies in, I fell immediately in lifelong love with the concept, the campiness, the make-up. And that love has only grown as the franchise has been re-worked and re-launched across movie and print media. (One of my greatest regrets is selling my Marvel Comics Planet of the Apes magazine collection; another is throwing away the Mego Planet of the Apes action figures I played with until they’d be worth nothing on the collector market. Hindsight is 20/20, or something like that.)

I recently re-watched the original five movies in release order, and I still love them. The ape make-up may be unrealistic compared to the motion-capture effects of the newest Apes trilogy, but it has such charm, and such consistency across the franchise (slight differences in the facial structure for chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, less diversity between individuals of a sub-set). I did always find the stratification of clothing (all chimps wear the same color, etc.) a bit less realistic. Why is it that SF (definitely in the 50-60s-70s, and even somewhat now) can imagine complex alien races but not imagine that they might have thriving clothing industries similar to our current day? I wonder if any writer has explored the idea that part of the Apes structured society was a dress code? (I’m not as up on the comics and prose canon-adjacent material released in recent years as I am on the filmed/televised canon.)

The body language of the various ape characters, especially in the first two movies, also fascinates me: the way most of the chimps are more hunch-shouldered and subservient despite being the obviously smartest ones in any room (even the teenager Lucius comes across as smarter, if not less impetuous, than the adult gorillas); the orangutan characters always seem to walk with their heads held high and shoulders wide; the gorillas all move like spacially-unaware linebackers. This changes a little bit in the fourth movie, when all of the apes are subservient and non-verbal, but it’s otherwise consistent.

As a kid, the cold war and racial strife allegories went right over my head. As an adult watching with a slightly more critical eye, they’re obvious without being too ham-fisted in the delivery. I can’t accuse them of being subtle, especially in the fourth and fifth movies, but I also don’t feel like every other line of dialogue is telegraphing the issue to the viewers.

Other things I didn’t notice back then but picked up on now: the fact that Roddy McDowell did not play Cornelius in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” the only live-action Apes entry of the 60s-70s that he missed out on; that the timing of Cornelius, Zira and Milo fishing Taylor’s original spacecraft out of the sea it crashed in, getting it working, and getting into orbit just doesn’t add up based on Cornelius, Zira and Lucius’ location in the first half of Beneath (there’s a recent novel that tells this story; I haven’t read it yet but I hope it doesn’t just hand-wave the time component); that Natalie Trundy is the Mark Lenard of the Apes franchise, playing a mutant (in Beneath), a human (in Escape), and a chimp (in Conquest and Battle). (Mark Lenard was the first, and maybe still only, actor to hit a similar trifecta in the Star Trek franchise, playing a Romulan, a Vulcan, and a Klingon) …

And the geography. Oh my god, the geography: at the start of the first film, Taylor’s crew crashes into a large lake in a canyon area. (I don’t know where they filmed it, but it sure looks like the American southwest.) At the end of the film, of course, we get the famous reveal of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand of the ocean as Taylor finds out he’s been on Earth the whole time.  In Beneath, Brent and Nova track Taylor into the underground city, and we see mock-ups of famous NYC landmarks, including Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, where the Omega Bomb resides.  In Battle, we find out that the city Caesar led the rebellion in in Conquest is … New York City? Because Kolp is ready to launch that same Omega bomb… but the city we saw in Conquest and Battle looks absolutely nothing like Manhattan or any of the boroughs. I still can’t, even with my willing suspension of disbelief, figure out how the American northeast changes so drastically between the 1991 setting of Conquest and the 3978 setting of the first film. I’m still not even sure of the distance Taylor and crew travel on foot at the start of the first movie: are we to assume the lake/river they crash in is a transformed Hudson River Valley? That feels too close considering the number of days they seem to travel before the landscape changes to greener and they enter Ape territory. Is it the Delaware? That might be a little more plausible. The Susquehanna or Ohio? I just don’t know. it does occasionally keep me up at night.

The things I did notice, even as a kid?

1) The very clear shift in who the audience was supposed to be rooting for. In the first two movies, we’re clearly meant to root for (if not identify with) misanthropic Taylor and chivalrous Brent, lone speaking humans aided, mostly in secret, by one other non-verbal human (Nova) and at most three chimps (Zira, Cornelius, and their nephew Lucius) working in secret against their own obviously oppressive government and a hidden city of mutants. The third movie isn’t subtle about flipping this dynamic on its head: now we’ve got three chimps (Zira, Cornelius and poor, doomed Milo) trying to escape the clutches of an increasingly-oppressive human government with the help of only three humans working in secret (Dixon, Stephanie and Armando). Conquest is almost a complete flip of the dynamic of the first movie, with our solo hero (Caesar) and his non-verbal female interest (Lisa) being aided by only one sympathetic human (MacDonald). Battle completes the transition by relegating even the friendliest humans to supporting cast status (at best) and centering on ape vs. ape politics and those pesky evil mutants again.

2) Those apes looked nothing like the real chimps, orangutans and gorillas in our world. Even then, I wanted some kind of explanation as to how they evolved. How did chimps become human-sized? How did orangutans and gorillas all become so slim? And how did they all become so uniform even within species? It’s what I now call the “one line of dialogue” rule – if it can be explained in one or two lines of dialogue (and this certainly could have been), then the writers need to make that happen. But obviously, in the original Apes franchise, none of the several movie (or TV series) writers cared enough to postulate some kind of human gene-manipulating interference.

And I think that’s the interesting dichotomy of the original Apes franchise: while it did try to comment on weighty topics of the day (not just the Cold War and race relations, but the treatment of women and human abuse of nature vs. stewardship of it and fears of a threat from outer space wiping us out), it also didn’t really expect to be thought about too deeply, and so some gaping plots holes sit in plain view without a patch-job in sight.

Still: plot holes and weird geography are a part of the original franchise’s charm, and I will never stop loving it. It will stay near the top of my Favorite Movie Franchises list, always.

(Since it’s not a part of a series and thus doesn’t really fit into any of the posts I’m planning, this is probably the place to mention Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake/reboot/whatever-you-call-it. I didn’t see it until just last year. I found that it had a lot of the original franchise’s charm in terms of make-up and costumes and plot-holes and that it seemed to be trying to tackle some weightier subjects like the original franchise (militarism in particular, this time). I didn’t hate it as some people did. But I did find the “twist” ending to be gratuitous and unnecessary, almost as if someone (Burton or the studio) thought that in order to make this the start of a new franchise, they had to twist the original twist. And it just didn’t work, on any level. Even as meta-commentary, it fell flat. But I am glad I finally watched it, and I had fun watching Tim Roth and Michael Clarke Duncan chew the scenery.)

SERIES SATURDAY: Beth Cato's Blood of Earth Trilogy

This is the first of a new series of posts about … well, series. I do so love stories that continue across volumes, in whatever form: linked short stories, novels, novellas, television, movies. I’ve already got a list of series I’ve recently read, re-read, watched, or re-watched that I plan to blog about. I might even, down the line, open myself up to letting other people suggest titles I should read/watch and then comment on.

For this inaugural edition, I’m going to ramble on a bit about a recently-concluded trilogy which I absolutely loved:  Beth Cato’s Blood of Earth Trilogy.

 

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The Blood of Earth trilogy is a magic-infused alternate history with steampunk trappings. The setting is various cities in the western United States, plus a short jaunt to Hawaii at a pivotal moment. It is 1906, just before the great San Francisco Earthquake. The United States and Japan have formed a powerful alliance called the Unified Pacific. China has been subjugated by Japan while Chinese in America are ghettoized, stereotyped, and removed from all chances at equal opportunities. Tensions along the western seaboard are mounting as Chinese residents are treated with less and less humanity – at the same time that the Unified Pacific also seems to be having political disagreements with the British (who have their own insurrection going on) and Russians (who are moving to control the Alaskan oil market).

Kermanite, a mined ore that can hold earth-generated magical energy for later use, is the “power behind the throne.” It’s used to power items small and great, allowing this alternate Earth to have flying ships and weapons which are steam-punk in design and execution if not operation. Some people are more capable of wielding this earth-magic than others; Wardens are stationed around the world to monitor, absorb, and control the energy released by seismic activity. The Wardens are all men – because the idea that a woman could wield such power is just unthinkable in this society. And the idea of a woman of mixed heritage holding such power is not only unthinkable, it’s unfathomable.

Enter Ingrid Carmichael: a powerful magic-user hiding in plain sight as a secretary to a powerful San Francisco-based Warden because women shouldn’t be able to do even an eighth of what she can do. Trained by Warden Sakaguchi from childhood and past the untimely death of her mother, Ingrid is strong-willed. But also knows how to blend in – half Black, half Pacific Islander, and a woman, she kind of has to be able to navigate the anti-Asian, and specifically anti-Chinese, sentiments around her.

Ingrid’s best friend is Lee – a Chinese teen servant/surrogate son to Mr. Sakaguchi who has secrets of his own that come into play as the series progresses. Mr. Sakaguchi is a surrogate father to Ingrid as well, given the disappearance of her own father when she was a small child.

Early in the first book, Ingrid meets the handsome, smart, secretive Cy, who is on the run as a Deserter, trying to leave warmongering family history behind. Cy is accompanied by his best friend from the military academy, Fenris – an incredible mechanic/engineer/pilot who is full of heart but acts gruff and uncaring. Fenris, as it turns out, is transgender. Cato works this fact in smoothly, as just another character fact no more or less important than Ingrid’s heritage or Cy’s family history.

Outside of Mr. Sakaguchi, the rest of the Wardens we meet are questionable at best, enemies at worst. When we meet Warden Blum – a powerful Japanese politician – and Warden Roosevelt – yes, Teddy Roosevelt – we’re not sure if they will be friends or foes to Ingrid. Roosevelt is the one “real” historical supporting character in the series. His presence grounds the story in our own history. Cato’s portrayal isn’t always flattering, but I think she captures the real Roosevelt very well – for every national park he created, he said or did something to marginalize people of color, and Cato captures that dichotomy so very well.

But while the presence of Roosevelt and cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and such make the world familiar, it’s the magic and the way it works (for peace and for war) that is the most impressive part of the world-building. Magical creatures exist, ranging from the almost-unknowable (giant snakes that live in seismic fault lines and whose movements generate the earth-magic at the core of the story), to the mighty (Chinese guardian spirits called Quilin, the goddess Pele) to the human-ish (kitsune, selkies) to the tiny (colonies of sylphs). Cato’s explanations for how magical energy is generated, the sickening effects it can have on those not talented enough to hold and control it, the way the Kermanite stores it and releases it – all feel so complete, so true, that every time the ground shakes I wonder if someone nearby is absorbing the energy to protect the rest of us. And the uses to which the magic is put feel very true to our own world. Some people just want to use it to heal (Reiki and acupuncture specialists), help (Ingrid) or build (Cy and Fenris, peripherally), while others want to use it to control (various wardens/politicians) or destroy (the Japanese government and certain insurrectionists). And while our main characters clearly choose sides/roles early on, there are many characters who start out believing one choice is correct and come to see the opposite (telling you who would spoil too much of the second and third books).

The character-building is as impressive as the world-building. Almost every main and supporting character has an arc to be explored. Some of those arcs build slower than others, and there’s at least one character I wish had had more of a storyline, but they all get to have their own moments and lives even while serving the main plot. Even tertiary characters have personality and a living energy often missing from characters who come on stage only to serve a brief purpose / propel the action forward. Ingrid is a wonderfully strong-willed lead character, but that’s not her only trait. She’s insecure about her abilities and what effect they will have if she can’t control them; she’s sometimes head-strong to a fault; she swings from too-trusting to too-suspicious (sometimes at inconvenient times); she pushes herself beyond her limits to save others; she is funny, smart, and romantic. In other words, real and well-rounded. And Cy is almost totally the same – the old saying “opposites attract” is put to the lie here – without subverting Ingrid’s lead role in her own story. And make no mistake: though surrounded by interesting subplots for her group of supporting characters, this trilogy is Ingrid’s story – Ingrid’s fight to hone her abilities, uncover her family’s past, defeat the enemies and save the day. Beth Cato is a fantastic author, and I’m sure she could tell interesting stories in this world without Ingrid if she really wanted to – but she couldn’t tell this story without Ingrid involved every step of the way, up to the very satisfactory end of book three, in which all plots and important subplots are wrapped up.

So: read the Blood of Earth trilogy if you like magic-infused alternate history, strong female leads, diverse supporting casts, steampunk-ish technology, and legends come to life. I’d be surprised if you were disappointed at all.