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Hard Sun review

“It’s as if Luther, Line of Duty and Utopia all went to the pub together, emerged several hours later, steaming, and decided to form a supergroup.”

Guardian review

That was pretty much my feeling at the end of this 6-part drama that was first shown in 2018. Hard Sun is 3 parts sci-fi/apocalypse, 3 parts police drama, 2-parts horror/gore, 2 parts hacktivism/computer crime and one-and-a-half parts moral/theological issues. Yes, I know that adds up to eleven-and-a-half parts; that illustrates how much is crammed into this decidedly unusual story.
This makes the plot hard to summarise, but here goes. A hacker (clearly based on Gary McKinnon) stumbles on an above-top-top-secret Goverment file. Codenamed Hard Sun, it reveals that an extinction-level event is about to happen and that the planet will become uninhabitable within five years. Naturally the government wants to suppress this news.
Then the hacker gets murdered and the memory drive containing the sole copy of the file goes missing – the genius-level hacker somehow having forgotten to make any backup copies. So everyone, including the unwitting local police, are looking for the maguffin memory drive.
The two police leads, Elaine Renko and Charlie Hicks, are both Complicated Characters With Dark Secrets. They start off loathing each other, but the storyline refuses to accommodate any opposites-attract nonsense. Although they do eventually find common ground and a grudging sort of comradeship, they still don’t like each other.
Against tremendous opposition(of course!) these two together recover the memory drive, see what’s on it and decide it shouldn’t be hidden, so some of the file contents do get out.
At this point, we suddenly fast forward four months. And everything is pretty well normal. Depite the fact that our heroes are known to be the ones that released the file, they’re still with the police, working as usual. Apart from the ‘Hard Sun’ graffitti everywhere and “Hard Sun Truthers” crawling all over the internet, everyone else seems to have forgotten about it. The explanation that “The Government” is suppressing all public discussion of the matter and spreading disinformation about it being a deliberate hoax isn’t really convincing. But it’s all fiction anyway – I can suspend my disbelief for a while longer (although it continues to get sorely tried all the way through to the end).
This is from Neil Cross, the writer of Luther, so there’s plenty of stylish violence and gore; at times, I had to fast-forward the recording. (Trigger warning – there’s LOTS of blood!) Also, there are three different serial killers, one of whom doesn’t actually kill his victims (you read that right); at least two so grotesquely evil that Stephen King would have given his writing hand to have dreamed them up.
Speaking of violence, the various bloody fights were quite unusual, in that nobody drew a gun. In a welcome change from the usual blast-holes-in-people gunplay, everybody instead pulls out an extemdable police baton and hauls away.

The ending – well, without giving any spoilers, it’s rubbish. It seems that Cross had planned a detailed six-series story arc, but the producers pulled out. So we got an ending that was a gigantic cliff-hanger, with all the plotlines hanging and no resolution.
A huge pity – despite the gore and violence. I’d have liked a second series at the very least. After this time, there’s no hope of getting the series going again, but maybe Cross will write it as a series of novels instead?

More Thoughts

This post is a sort of run-on from the last. I had a bit of a rant there about how “diverse” characters (and I’m not talking just about trans) shouldn’t be shoehorned into a creative work without justification. Welp, I wasn’t really expecting to have my point proved so quickly.

I’ve just finished reading Gareth L. Powell’s Light of Impossible Stars, the third in a space-opera trilogy. I liked the first two, and I liked this as well. However, I got a bit of a jolt when late in the book he introduces a new character and sets them up with another, established, character. To avoid spoilers, I’ll call the characters involved A and B. A is the established character and they are both biologically female humans.
As I said, it’s a space opera, set in the far future. A, B and most of the cast are battling against a genocidal alien force; up till now the narrative has been straightforwardly SF/mil/thriller with just a side-order of relationship complications that have been kept low-key and soap-free, and which serve to illuminate the characters. But, within just pages of B being introduced the writing turns decidely Mills & Boon. This is A having a conversation with B:

…[B] glanced down. Her eyes were the lustrous brown of ripe horse chestnuts, with tiny flakes of gold around the pupils, and I felt something skip in my chest…

This bit of glurgy slush (which is entirely unrepresentative of the style of the rest of the book) continues for a while in the same vein, until:

“…Given the choice, wouldn’t you rather keep your body?”
[B] froze. She glanced down at her tunic, and then looked away into the trees, jaw clenched.
I asked, “I’m sorry, have I said something wrong?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I might.”
“It’s personal.”

Anyway, a few pages and a huge space battle later, we come a scene where A gets to the heart of B’s ‘problem’. It’s a long passage, so I’ve cut a lot of it, hence all the ellipses:

“What’s your problem?” I asked. She looked up, her face lit from beneath by the glow of her screens, her eyes the colour of autumn.
“You look like you don’t want to be here.”…
…She clasped her hands on the console. “I am dealing with some personal issues….”
…[B] turned her head away. She bit her bottom lip. “It’s more than that….”
…[B] tugged the hem of her tunic, straightening it. She clapped her hands together and pressed the fingertips to her lips. “I’m not really a woman” she said.

And now we get to the point:

I frowned. “Okay.” She looked down at herself. “I mean, physically I am. I was born female. But that’s not how I see myself. That’s not how I am.”
“You’re transgender?” “Yes.”
I laughed with relief. “Is that all?” I’d shipped with trans crewmates before and it had never been a big deal, especially in the Outward, where people had always been free to be whatever the hell they wanted to be, as long as they weren’t hurting anyone else.

I will now stop directly quoting here – I think you get the drift.
In summary: B tells of how she was scheduled to have GRS before this all-out galactic war started and now she fears she’ll never get it. Billions (including all of her family and friends) are dead, hundreds of planets laid waste and civilisation nearly everywhere has been pretty well destroyed. But the prospect of having to spend the rest of her life in the “wrong” body is what she’s having a sad about: “I was about to become the person I am inside, but…I’ll die like this.” (This sentiment of disgust at her body comes after several passages emphasising her incredible physical beauty and attractiveness.)
A’s internal narration continues. She muses to herself that changing sex in this future is very easy – there is the technology to “reprogramme cells and sculpt flesh” (ewww). However, to her (or rather, the writer’s) credit, she then muses on quite a bit to the reader (but not to B) about how millions of the survivors will suffer and die now that they no longer have access to the kind of modern medical technology that can “sculpt flesh”.
Having got the ethical bit over with, it’s back to the important stuff; she looks into B’s eyes and “for a second, everything else fell away. I could hardly breathe.”
This beautiful moment is interrupted by the spaceship’s AI, who has been listening in. She (notice to the pronouns police: I’m using correct pronouns here; this AI – despite possessing no organic parts beyond a few ounces of canine brain matter – has been assigned as female by the author) says she could do the op, she’s done it before and its perfectly simple: “It’s just a matter of altering the body’s hormonal balance and tinkering with the chromosomes, changing an X to a Y. After that, it’s mostly cosmetic. Nothing too complex.” Easy peasy. Just a couple of hours work.

Wait, what…? Despite the story’s universe being convincingly detailed throughout, this is the very first mention in the entire trilogy of humans changing sex. There was possibly some mention here and there of gay sexualities, but I’m 99.99% sure that a word-search would turn up zero instances of ‘trans’, or even ‘gender’, before this.
More than that, just think of what could be done with total body modification on this scale. If changing sex was simply a matter of chromosome-tweaking, hormones and a bit of cosmetic surgery, there wouldn’t be just trans people (and just by-the-by, if their very chromosomes have been changed, how could anybody know that trans people were trans?); there would also be actual sexless non-binary people and real dual-sexed hermaphrodites (despite the stories, true human hermaphrodism is simply not possible); there would be real furries too – people would be going around in whatever exotic body form they desired. Because that’s what people would do, if the technology existed. More than that, such technology would remove the need to terraform planets – human colonists could adapt their bodies to the environment, instead of the other way about.
And with a technology capable of modifying living cells at the chromosome level, why stop at physical changes? How about curing intractable mental disorders as well, by ‘tweaking’ a few hundred carefully selected neurons? That way, B’s gender dysphoria could have been be dealt with in moments, leaving her happy with the perfect body she already had.
But no, there’s not a mention of anything like that. Everyone is visibly and boringly human, with all the standard human sex-differentiated features, and all human habitats are constructed or adapted to the standard human physiology. There’s one scene with some people wielding mechanical prostheses cybernetically melded with their neural systems, but that’s as far as bodymodding appears go in this particular universe. The author is simply retconning.

So what happens to B? She has the op and reappears the next day, proudly showing off his new manly bod. And A? The change of sex makes no difference to her, she still gazes upon her autumn-eyed love with unfulfilled desire. (I’m just guessing about it being unfullfilled, there’s been no mention of anything beyond chaste handholding. “No Sex Please, We’re Characters In A Space Opera”?) B then announces that he’s off to some other adventure (“nice knowing you all, but I’ve got my new life to live” etc); A retires to her cabin with a broken heart.
And that’s it for B’s character! She plays only a tiny part in the plot, filling a space that could be occupied by anybody. Her transness has no function at all within the story; if s/he was red-haired instead, it would make no difference; she’s a character shoved in without narrative justification. And it shows.

Finally, I know nothing about the author, or why he thought that inserting this character was a good idea; I’ve merely read, and enjoyed, a few of his books. (You may enjoy them too!)
But I’ve discovered over the last couple of years that there are a large number of people who know very little about trans genderism/sexualism*, don’t realise that sex and gender are two different things**, think that being trans is merely a matter of being born into the “wrong body”*** and that this is just a little mistake that can be corrected with hormones and surgery, with the trans person living happily ever after. Above all, they want to be kind to trans people – who are all suffering terribly – and they want to show everybody that they are kind and nice and progressive.
I personally think that this character, in this story, was a mistake; the lack of backstory and characterisation indicates that it was a last-minute addition, bunged in without much thought.
I’m reminded of Sleeping Beauties by Stephen & Owen King, which is about how women everywhere are all overcome by a supernatural sleeping sickness that they never wake from. It must have occurred to the Kings at some point during the writing that they might include some transwomen, but the story makes no mention of them. I like to think that the pair looked into the subject and found that the definition of ‘trans’ is so vague and elastic**** that they quickly backed away from the whole idea. Which is what Powell really should have done.

And so I end this post.

And here begin the footnotes.
* How many of them, for example, know that the majority of trans people don’t have genital surgery, and that some only take hormones and cross-dress. Some self-IDd ‘trans’ don’t even bother with the hormones and just cross-dress.
** Gender is the socially constructed characteristics of women and men; it varies varies between cultures and can be changed. Sex refers to the biological differences that distinguish women from men; it cannot be changed.
*** Which makes it sound as though there’s a heavenly pre-natal conveyer belt where brains are plopped into the correct bodies and every now and then a brain carelessly ends up in the wrong body. And if you believe there are such things as ‘male’ and ‘female’ brains, please read Gina Rippon or Cordelia Fine
**** Well, what does constitute transness? Is a trans person someone who simply declares that they are the opposite sex, or if they cross-dress even when it’s only for half a week? (You may well laugh, but both of these are recognised by StonewallUK as coming under the “trans umbrella”.) Are they trans only if they undergo total Gender Recognition Surgery? When exactly does a trans person change from being non-trans? (‘Sleeping Beauties’ might have had to include a tragic scene where a man wakes up from sleep wailing “Dammit – I’m still not a woman!”) There are no settled answers to any of these questions, so I don’t blame the Kings for not tackling them.

A Book Review (with diverse diversions)

Just finished John Scalzi’s Old Mans War. It’s now been out for 15 years and is one of those books that everyone who knows SF says you ought to read. So I finally did.

Clearly a homage to Robert Heinlein, it’s not a bad read at all – I only skipped a few pages, near the end, when I was in a hurry to get to the climax. The plot is basically this: in the future, humanity is exploring the stars and has discovered there are are lots of intelligent alien life forms already out there there; however this is not your cosy idealistic Star Trek universe – most of the aliens out there are trying to kill each other and, humanity being what it is, is joining in – in the name of defending Earth, of course. To this end the Colonial Defence Force, an army of space warriors, has been formed; however, having absorbed the lessons of the past, the CDF aren’t taking young draftees off to be killed/mutilated. Their solution is to recruit only 75-year-olds, with the promise of having their failing bodies turned into a new, highly enhanced *young* body. There are of course some catches; for example, recruits have to serve a minimum of 10 years in the Force, be declared legally dead under Earth law and permanently exiled from the planet.

That original immediately became popular, spawning a whole 15-book series which are now to be adapted for a Netflix series. Because of his support for all and every LGBTQ+ cause, Scalzi has a lot of trans followers on Twitter and they’ve all been excitedly asking if there are going to be any trans characters in the show (some are even volunteering to be auditioned). And of course he’s reassured them that he will make sure that will happen.
Now, I see a plotting problem with this. Recruits for the Defence Force don’t get a repaired body; they get a completely new body cultured from their DNA and with their minds transferred into the new brain via sciencey-handwavey stuff. So, for transsexuals, that means that they end up with their original sex.
“But can’t they just change the sex of the new body via the DNA?”
Easier said than done. I’m no expert by any means, but I’ve read qute a bit on the DNA problems that produce intersex disorders, and switching the chromosomes around to produce a perfect body of the opposite sex just cannot be done.
“But they can just transition all over again, surely?”
Again, easier said than done. Full medical transition means some very complex surgery which can go wrong, followed by lifelong medication with hormones – a path that frequently produces chronic health problems down the line. Would any military really want recruits who aren’t going to be fully fit and combat-ready at all times?[1]
“But medical science will have advanced by then and all those problems will be solved!”
That’s possible, perhaps even probable. However, would this fictional military force that has a constant need for vast numbers of combat soldiers really want to spend time and resources on satisfying the wishes of a very small minority? The show’s writers will probably come up with some sciencey-handwavey explanation, or maybe just ignore it altogether.

Or they might notice that Scalzi has inadvertently already given them a perfectly good solution. In the OMW universe, people who want to join the CDF have to register for it on their 65th birthday; they then have a ten-year grace period during they can drop out any time. However, the registration process includes supplying a DNA sample – which immediately becomes the property of the Defence Force (another of the catches that I mentioned above). Lots of people die before they reach 75; additionally the majority of CDF soldiers are killed before their enlistment period is up. All this leaves the CDF (which has been operating for decades) with millions of DNA samples that they can use for anything at all. So, if a recruit requests, a body of the opposite sex closely matched to the recruit’s own ethnicity, build and colouring[2] can be provided. But I’m betting that the writers will go for the handwavey-science bit[3]. Much simpler.
(ADDED 22nd February. I’m now reading The Ghost Brigades, the second book in the series. Scalzi has dumped a lot more information about the CDF’s methods of transferring a mind into another brain; it turns out that this is only possible when the host body has the same DNA as the original. In other words, it can only be done with a clone.
The entire plot of Ghost Brigades rests on this fact, so it can’t be hand-waved away. However, I’m quite sure that the writers will come up with some sciency explanation. Or just ignore it – anyone who thinks screenwriters wouldn’t tamper with the plot details of an classic work of fiction should take a gander at the differences between Pat Parker’s debut novel Union Street and the Hollywood adaptation.)

There’s another, deeper, point I want to make in all this.
These days, any production that has a transgender character will face demands that it should be played by a trans actor. This sounds commendable – you get BAME actors playing BAME parts and disabled actors playing disabled parts. But this situation isn’t at all comparable. Trans people don’t have a disability and they’re not a race; there’s nothing (in theory) that visibly marks out a trans person as trans and the vast majority of trans people try hard to pass as their chosen gender. They don’t want to be singled out.
The argument “They don’t have the life experience” simply doesn’t work – how many actors have the “life experience” of being a criminal, a a murderer, king, queen, a ghost, a Roman emperor etc? It’s an actor’s entire job to pretend to be what they’re not! So a trans character can be played by a non-trans actor, and a trans actor can play a non-trans part; just get the best person for the job. Additionally, the only reason to include an explicitly trans character in a story should be that the character has a reason to be there; that their trans status is germane to the story and not just a ticked-off item on the writer’s / production company’s diversity checklist. Otherwise, why bother? You’d just be virtue-signalling.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for diversity in the media. What I’m against is specifically labelling a character as disabled, trans or whatever, without narrative justification; this is reinforcing the idea that such people are some weird race apart. Honestly, I’d love it if all shows had a character played by an obviously ‘diverse’ actor without any mention of their diversity in the story![4].

Here cometh the footnotes:
[1]: Yes, I know that there are trans soldiers in several forces around the world; but can you tell me how many get sent into front-line combat?
[2]: Though, with green-tinged skin, colour doesn’t really matter to CDF soldiers.
[3]: Like the writers on the early Star trek series; whenever they needed a sciencey-sounding but actually meaningless bit of dialogue, they simply inserted TECH into the script and had their hired science consultant fill it in. Like this:
La Forge: “Captain, the tech is overteching.”
Picard: “So route the auxiliary tech to the tech, Mr. La Forge.”
La Forge: “No, Captain, I’ve tried to tech the tech, and it won’t work.”
Picard: “Well then, we’re doomed.”

[4]: I’m using ‘diverse’ & ‘diversity’ here so that I don’t have to keep writing ‘GNC / trans / disabled / BAME’ all the time.

Mr Mercedes S1 Review

So, having dealt with Designated Survivor (which didn’t survive), I’ve been watching the first series of Mr Mercedes. I loved the book and was interested to see what sort of mess the adaptation would turn out to be. Up till now, I’ve seen screen adaptations of eight King works – The Shining, Dolores Claiborne, Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, The Dome (TV series), Langoliers (TV series), Kingdom Hospital (TV series) and 11/22/63 (TV series). The movies were terrific; the TV series were spotty. The Dome was just terrible (every single recording of it should be confiscated, fired into the sun and never mentioned again); Kingdom Hospital was less terrible, but only slightly – it was at least four hours too long and nothing will make me sit through it a second time; Langoliers was OK but not memorable; 11/22/63 was terrific – mainly due to the fact that it cut out about 500 pages of padding and subplots from the novel and concentrated on the main story of the time-jumping hero.
So I was hoping that this one would be good, at least. And, so far, it is – sort of. There are quite large changes from the book – Hodges’ neighbour is given a name and fleshed out as a widow who is constantly trying to get him into bed. This could have been horribly overdone, but the writing and acting is sensitive enough to make it just gently comical and touching.
Jerome no longer speaks that ridiculous jive-talk, thankfully (it should never have got into the book, frankly). Mrs Hartfield is also fleshed out, with a backstory that makes her more sympathetic and far less of a grotesque. Hartfield’s job and his co-workers at the electronics store are expanded, especially Lou “Freddy” Linklatter. She turns out to be a strong and interesting character who has to face almost daily homophobia. I’d really like to see more of her.1
Hodges, for some reason, now has a strong Irish accent. There’s no mention of his background in the book, and there’s no reason why he has to be Irish here2; Bendan Gleeson can presumably do American accents perfectly well. Gleeson does look and play the part of an alcoholic, aging ex-cop very well, I just find the accent jars. I listened to the books, which were all read by the splendid Will Patton; for me, Bill Hodges will always have Patton’s gravelly growl.
Holly is also a disappointment – she’s far too young! Book-Holly is 45 and looks it; TV-Holly is “31 and a half” and is played by an actor who looks about 18. I know she’s meant to be quite childish due to being treated like one all her life, but did the producers really have to put her in the kind of flowery dresses and lacy ankle-socks worn by 12-year olds? She also rather overdoes Holly’s autistic tics and weirdnesses; I’m not sure if this is due to the writing or the actor. She does the various tics well, but it looks forced.
The ending is changed, too (although Holly still gets to perform some satisfying self-therapy on Hartsfield’s skull). In ep 9, Hartsfield has (how is never explained) got wind of the SWAT team swoop on his house in enough time to set up a massively complex distraction-display of electronic tricks and fireworks, ending with him apparently being immolated alongside his poisoned mother. But we all know it wasn’t his body on his mama’s bed – it’s still only the penultimate episode and he has to be alive for the big finale in ep 10.
So how did he get out of a house that was surrounded by police? We find out in a single line from Pete Huntley: “He had egress. The SWAT team found a hidden door in the cellar leading to a tunnel.”
That is literally all the explanation we get. (And do US cops actually say “egress”? Did the hidden door perhaps have a “This way to the egress” notice tacked to it?) In story-telling terms, this just does not fit – there is no forewarning of this escape route, no foreshadowing. We see plenty of Hartsfield’s cellar, but we never see that door, and there’s zero references to a tunnel. Who built it, how was it built, where does it lead to – none of these questions are answered. “He had a tunnel” is just a deus ex machina pulled straight out of the ether.
It’s almost as if the writers were working on the fly, just a couple of episodes ahead of production and discovered they had written themselves into a corner:
“Hey guys – now how do we get Hartsfield out of the house when it’s surrounded by cops?”
“Maybe… maybe a secret tunnel?”
“Well, you know we have to put in at least one obscure reference to one of King’s books in every episode…”3
“Yes, and…?”
“Shawshank Redemption! Y’know, that escape tunnel?”
King exec-produced this and I get the strong feeling that he was grabbing the chance to rewrite parts of his book to fit the current political and economic climate. He’s entitled to do that and I’ve no complaints. But surely that escape-tunnel nonsense in ep 9 would have caused him to send the script back with a great big “WTF???” scribbled over it in red pencil?4

So, I’ll now download Series 2 and see how that goes.

1 Having risked spoilers and checked out reviews of the second series, I find that we do see Freddie again. I’d hoped that she’d be recruited into Hodges’ investigation agency; as a fellow nerd but much more grounded, she’d make a good foil to Holly. Disappointingly, this doesn’t seem to be the case, even though she does apparently play a major role.
2 Having dug a bit more, it appears that during the initial script runthroughs, everyone was so charmed by hearing Gleeson swear in his native accent that Hodges was given Irish origins, specifically so that he would continue swearing in his native accent onscreen.
Nope, me neither.
3 That actually appears to be true. Though far from being a King aficionado, I’ve spotted at least four such references without even trying. There’s almost certainly a fan wiki somewhere listing every single one.
4 Having now read episode reviews of the series, it appears nobody else was at all annoyed by this “With a single bound through his hitherto unrevealed escape tunnel, he was free…” plot device. And it was a single writer who wrote that episode. Huh.

Designated Survivor review Pt 2

Well, I’ve carried on watching and have now finished Ep 15 (of 22). I’m not really excited about it, but I’ve paid for the whole series so I’m determined to get my money’s worth. Besides, I am mildly curious about how the story will pan out.
The US has turned out some excellent TV series – The Americans, The Wire, Mad Men, West Wing – but DS is nowhere near that standard, I’m afraid. The writing is pretty poor, with each eopisode settling into a formulaic action/family soap/drama/action pattern. And there’s little attention paid to what should be running storylines. For instance, are Muslims and other minorities still being persecuted? What happened to the arrested Michigan governor? How is the country managing with the loss of its entire Government? These and other questions are never addressed at all.
And then there’s the ongoing family soap. Kirkman’s teenage son started out as a typical teenager, lying to his parents,going to raves, selling drugs to his friends, being a total brat at home. Plenty of material there for some interesting plotlines and character development. But no, just a week or so of living in the White House turned him into a squeaky-clean angel. Oh, there was that episode-and-a-half half of overworked histrionics about who his real dad was, but that ended in gallons of schmaltz. tears and “Love you guys…(sniffle)”. And the cute young daughter? She could have been played by an animatronic dummy – and that’s NOT being mean to the kid playing her, who did a perfectly good job with very poor material.
Thankfully, the kids have now been despatched to live somewhere else – Camp David, or their Granny’s place, I’ve really not cared enough to pay attention. I suspect that the writers realised that the soapy family drama really wasn’t working and so sent them off to a nice farm somewhere where they’ll have a lovely life playing with the animals….
And the writing…! Oh dear, oh dear….. To give one example – the Prez is in the War Room with his generals, coping with the latest international-crisis-of-the-week; a Lords Army-type gang of murderous African rebels is headed towards a town where thousands of refugees have gathered; said refugees will get horribly genocided if US/UN forces don’t stop the rebels; something or other (I wasn’t paying attention) is stopping the Western forces from bombing the crap out of the rebels before they reach the town. So Kirkman grabs a map; crying “I used to be an urban planner!” he points to a couple of bridges. “The rebels have to cross these to get to the town, don’t they?” he asks, and the generals nod. “So,” he exclaims in triumph, “Why don’t we BOMB THE BRIDGES?”
The generals don’t quite step back and gasp in amazement at this civilian’s uncanny grasp of military strategy, but they come close. And, kids, that’s how thousands of African refugees owe their lives to a middle-aged US urban planner!

Maggie Q in Designated Survivor
Maggie Q

However, it’s turning into a surprisingly good thriller, due in large part to actor Maggie Q, who plays FBI agent Hannah Wells. She is basically Jack Bauer in a well-fitting pantsuit. She may be mourning the death of a lover, but she keeps the tears firmly under control and works though her grief by going totally hard-bitch on the asses of any nearby bad guys. She is honestly just brilliant at the action stuff; and really, action stuff is pretty much all this series has going for it. Also, there are enough twists and turns in the conspiracy storyline to keep me watching, just to see how silly it gets.

So, watch this if you want a decent action thriller with a kickass female lead. Just don’t expect 24 Hours: The West Wing.

Designated Survivor review Pt 1

I only learned about this US TV series when I saw a post on Twitter about a trailer for the second series, which featured a shot of one of the characters sitting in a London cafe. This trailer followed the time-hallowed Hollywood convention of using signifiers of typical English life – in this case, a red telephone box, black cabs and a picture of the Queen hanging on the wall – to let us know that we are in England. The Twitterati were having great fun with this sequence by pointing out the errors – traffic going the wrong way, the wrong type of license plates on the cars, every public building having a picture of Her Majesty (Gawd bless ‘er!) on the wall….

Designated Survivor poster

So, I looked up the series and it sounded quite promising. The Designated Survivor is the low-level cabinet member who has to be kept in a safe room during the annual State of the Union address, when the President addresses the entire US goverment apparatus – Congress, Senate and judiciary. In the extremely unlikely event of, say, a huge bomb going off in the building and blowing up every single person inside, the Designated Survivor suceeds to the Presidency and forms a new government.
Here, Kiefer Sutherland plays Richard Kirkman, who happens to be the chosen minor cabinet member when the extremely unlikely event happens; the series follows him as he struggles to keep the country together. I first read about the Designated Survivor protocol years ago and it’s odd that nobody appears to have used it as the basis for a work of fiction before now.
So far, I’ve watched two episodes and my interest is now waning a little. The first episode is the scenesetter, showing the principled but unambitious Kirkman going through his day as a father, husband and Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. He learns that he’s about to be fired and moved sideways to an unimportant diplomatic job in Canada; a bit of a wimp, he’s unwilling to make waves and his wife has to persuade him that he should make a stand and refuse the new posting on principle. In the evening, he settles down in the safe room with beer, popcorn and TV, watching the address. Then the TV goes off….

Kiefer Sutherland in Designated Survivor
Kiefer Sutherland

The first episode is pretty good overall. The family set-up was decidely soapy – cute blonde seven-year-old daughter, sulky spotty teenage son, georgeous blonde brainy wife – but it wasn’t pushed too hard and I could overlook it. Sutherland’s performance as the stunned Kirkman is pretty good. He’s in frozen shock for much of the time, as anyone would be under the circumstances; grabbed by Secret Servicemen and rushed to the White House bunker, then hurled straight into the business of of running a government in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist event far bigger and deadlier than 9/11. He spends about a third of the episode with a very convincing rabbit-in-the-headlights look.
There is one jarring moment, in a scene where Kirkman throws open the shutters on the window in his safe room and sees the enormous fireball rising above Washington. Um, wasn’t he supposed to be in an underground bunker? But no matter – the moment passes quickly and we’re pitched into the action, which is well-done. And there are one or two decent lines. For example, when the Secret Service pick up the sulky teenage son from the warehouse rave that he sneaked off to, he asks them how they found him. Head Secret Service guy says “Well, we went through all your social media contacts, combed through their recent posts with a keyword-matching program, triangulated some likely places…” STS: “Really? You can do all that?” HSS: “You think we’re some kind of masterminds? Nah, we simply pinged your phone, stupid!”
Throughout, we get quick introductions to the main characters – an improbably young and georgeous Oriental non-blonde FBI agent, the cartoonishly hawkish General who is itching for war (of course), the blandly handsome Chief of Staff,the minority-ethnic speechwriter (we know he’s minority-ethnic because he’s plump, brownskinned, not-blonde, not-handsome; plus the actor is also a comic IRL and can’t help looking like one) – pretty much the usual clichéd Hollywood roster of characters.
Cliche is largely avoided, however, when it comes to Kirkman. Upon being sworn in, he doesn’t immediately turn into Jack Bauer. He remains the timid, unambitious inexperienced civil servant that he’s always been; the other characters in fact keep saying exactly that, sometimes to his face. You get the distinct impression that the whole lot are taking bets on how long he’ll will remain in office.

The second episode – well, that starts getting a little bit predictable. Islamic terrorists are immediately blamed; Dearborn, Michigan (which has the US’s largest poplation of Muslims) starts locking up anybody who looks brown; the brown-looking speechwriter gets harrassed by cops (to be fair, this last isn’t a cliché but pretty much everyday experience for brown-skinned minorities after a terrorist outrage). The writers still try to avoid the zero-to-hero cliche with Kirkman, with a disasterous photo-op that ends with the new president looking weak and hopeless, but inevitably the inner hero starts showing through. He gets tough with the Iranians, he gets even tougher with the rebellious Governor of Michigan and shows him who’s boss, he tells the war-mongering General he won’t be starting a war with Iran without 100% proof of guilt. You almost expect Jack Bauer to appear and waterboard the General.
The improbably georgeous FBI agent is clearly signalled as the heroine of the season, with her dogged insistence that the forensic clues pointing to Islamists have been planted to mislead. If she has a job title I missed it, but she is apparently an analyst who has single-handedly solved several major terrorist plots. However, nobody accepts her crazy idea that the forensic clues pointing to an Al-Queda offshoot have been planted to mislead everyone. And can you blame them? After all, who else but Islamic terrorists would want to blow up the US government? It’s a teeny bit obvious that she’ll be breaking open the whole case all by herself.
Then there’s the other Designated Survivor, from the Republican Party (Kirkman is a Democrat). She’s warm, friendly, insists that she and Kirkman must and will work together. She nice – too nice, you suspect; when we see her searching Kirkman’s past on Google, you may start wondering what she’s up to…
Would it perhaps involve that slight crazy HUD woman staffer from Ep 1, the one who worked closely with Kirkman before the bombing and is furious that he’s not been in touch since? is Kirkman really so squeaky-clean?
Tune in next week, folks. Well, you may – I may not.


It’s daffodil time here! This isn’t really a painting – well, it obviously isn’t. It’s a photo I put through a few filters.


Review: The Nicholas Cases

The Nicholas Cases: Casualties of Justice by Bob Woffinden
The Nicholas Cases
In 2006 I was the editor of a tiny astrological magazine and one of my regular contributors sent in an article about the Lady in The Lake murder. Briefly: teacher Gordon Park was convicted of the murder of his wife Carol; she had disappeared in 1976 and her body was found in Coniston Water in 1997. The writer was clearly in favour of Park’s innocence and had put a link to the family’s campaign to have his conviction overturned.
I read it and thought “Well, she’s entitled to an opnion, but he’s guilty, isn’t he? The police investigated thoroughly, the jury found him guilty. So he’s guilty!” Back then I actually believed that British justice couldn’t get things wrong (except of course in really exceptional cases like the Birmingham 6 or Stefan Kiszko.I printed the article, leaving off the campaign link. The writer rang me up, very upset; I gave her some stuff about editorial impartiality.
Today, sixteen years later, I’ve written to her to apologise. Gordon Parks’ case is one of ten that Woffinden believes to be miscarriages of justice. He examines each case forensically, showing what went wrong, how evidence was ignored, mishandled or even lost, how the investigators refused to admit they could be wrong, how assumptions went unquestioned. For example, in one murder case, police quickly became convinced that an Italian suspect was a Mafia hitman simply on the basis of a joke he had made about his “Family”; they even travelled to his parents’ house in Sicily and searched his room. Despite finding nothing there and having the assurances of Italian police that the family had no Mafia connections, they still proceeded with their investigations on that basis and ignored all other leads. In another case, Woffinden highlights evidence that quite strongly suggests police corruption. In a third case, the victim was seen alive – by a close friend who was certain she wasn’t mistaken – the day after her supposed murder. No body, or evidence of murder, was ever found and the friend’s sighting, like the circumstantial evidence suggesting that she had chosen to disappear, was never followed up.
And so on. If you ever thought that British justice never got things wrong, then let this book open your eyes.

The Strikeback

hand in paintGroping women is in the news right now, so I thought I’d share my experience.
It was around 1968/69; I was 18 or so. I was living in London, working in an office, travelling by tube every day. Getting touched up on those crowded commuter trains was a fairly routine experience for women in those times. It was what some men did, and we women put up with it. So, when I felt a hand on my buttock whicle I was standing on the one of the up escalators at Earls Court, I didn’t think much of it. Just hurried away when I got to the top, not looking back. The next afternoon, same time, same place, it happened again – somebody’s right hand, on top of my skirt, getting way too friendly with my right buttock. And the same creeping hand performance the next afternoon.
I could put up with the occasional random groping, but this was different – I was being targeted. This was personal.
The next afternoon, I was ready. I stood on the escalator; the Hand went through its same old repertoire, circling around my buttock, creeping into my crack, attempting entry into my most private part. I feigned ignorance of this assault, staying stock-still right up to the top of the escalator.
Taking two strides forward, I suddenly spun round on my heel – really fast – with my right arm straight out and my fist balled. My fist connected, with a crunch. By sheer luck, I had hit my groper bang on the nose.
He just stood there, in shock, not moving. Looking vastly surprised. Snot and blood bubbling from an out-of-shape nose. His jaw hanging open. Trying to process what had just happened to him.
He was just an ordinary-looking bloke, anoymous in a suit and tie like so many others. Didn’t look like a perv. Undoubtedly never thought of himself as a perv. What was wrong with just a bit of touching of a grown woman? That’s wasn’t anything violent, like hitting her; it wasn’t like rape! He wasn’t some dirty old man hanging around in a dark alley!

Meanwhile, all around us, the crowd was re-enacting a scene from one of those old Bateman cartoons where somebody commits a terrible social faux pas and everybody reels back in horror. For what seemed like ages – but was probably no more than ten or so seconds – nobody spoke or moved.
Having seen what I wanted to see, I turned back on my heel and walked away fast to my connecting train. Really, I wanted to dance, to sing, to shout aloud my joy, my triumph at finally striking back. But I had already caused enough of a scene, I felt. So I just walked. I did allow myself a big smile, though as I melted back into the crowd.

Wot I Did Yesterday….

So yesterday, I had one of my cataracts fixed – a novel experience. B had his cataracts done a couple of years ago and assured me it was a cakewalk – just a minute or two and it would be all over.
Er no, for me it wasn’t.
Three or four years ago, I had humoungeous problems with rotting teeth and gum infections, needing lots of sessions of extractions and fillings. The first session ended abruptly when I had a panic atttack and bolted; not wanting to live with my teeth problems any longer I went to Doc G and explained, he prescribed some Valium. I took one before each trip to the dentist and sailed through everything she could throw at me – in fact, before the final session I forgot to take the pill, but sailed serenely though nevertheless. I kept the remaining pills just in case of another trip to dental hell.

Despite B’s reassurances, I was nervous about this op, sleeping very badly the night before. So, belt and braces, I took a valium on the way to the hospital. Good foresight, it turned out.
Sitting in the waiting room, B pointed out the Mission Statement on the wall – the usual three paragraphs of corporate bafflegab. “Wonder how much they paid for that?” he murmered. “If you actually need a mission statement WE WILL DO WHAT WE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO surely covers everything.”

Then it was prepping, with the usual three-times-repeated safety check of name, date of birth, organ/body part to be operated on (just to be absolutely and totally sure, a big mark was inked above my right eye). Then onto the the operating table. A sterile mask went over my face (with a cheery “Don’t worry, we’re piping in oxygen to you.”) and an eyehole was cut out. Then came the bombshell.
The surgeon addressed me. “I’m afraid this will take some time – twenty minutes, perhaps thirty…”
He explained; I have a problem eyeball – it’s small, a little misshapen, and left nearly immobile by the operation I’d had as a child to correct severe astigmatism. Plus the lens was unusually thick. So I could forget about the quick ‘pop the old lens out, pop in the new one’ routine that B had gone through. Inserting my new lens would involve extremely careful slicing and stitching.
Oh well, only thirty minutes at most, I can do that….
There came the familiar scratching of Anxiety at the cellar door and the mask suddenly felt claustrophobic. Valium quickly stepped in; Anxiety was menaced into silence, I relaxed a little. And the op began.
The first few minutes were fine. I didn’t feel worried. At all. Until the lens was lifted out. Without a lens to concentrate the image, there was nothing for the retina and optic nerves to make sense of. It was just a flood of photons. With the overhead light pouring in, everything went a sort of indigo-gray interspersed with sharp-edged, flickering irregular black shapes. Like lightning flashes in negative. This must have been the surgeon, working with his instruments. Abruptly, I felt unreasoning terror – I was blind! That eye had never been much cop before, but at least it had bought me colours and shapes, however fuzzy and indistinct. Anxiety was pushing through the door, with Panic screeching right behind.
Then Valium stepped in again, fulfilling its Mission Statement quite magnificently. Both Anxiety and Panic were efficiently cudgelled into silence, kicked back down the cellar steps and the door firmly bolted. I could still make out a faint whimpering from the depths, but I felt safe again.
The operation went on, with lots of prodding, poking and, eventually, beautiful flares of colour as the lens was slid on and painstakingly stitched into place. I was relieved to (literally) see the end of the greyness – the shapes of the surgeon and nurses came into view behind explosions of pink, blue, yellow and white. Then it was finally over.
Faint and shaky, I had to be helped off the table. My years as a life model meant that I can stay rock-still for any length of time; but art classes don’t have people poking sharp pointy things into your eye! So it had been quite a strain.
When I stumbled/floated back into the waiting room, high on relief and my eye taped up, the next patient was already waiting. She had been chatting with B. and he had been reassuring her, as he had reassured me. “Yes!” I told her brightly. “It’s easy-peasy! No problemo! Just so long as you don’t have a bollixed-up eye like mine!”

B hustled me out rather quickly.