Review: Dexter, the TV series

Ever since I first saw Silence of the Lambs, the 1991 film starring Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, I have been fascinated by serial killers, both fictional and real. My interest in the real murderers did turn quickly from fascination to disgust. Learning about them was one reason why I ended up pursuing a career in law enforcement, although my personal involvement has remained tangential.

There is a difference between the real and fictional. Even those real serial killers who thwarted law enforcement and criminal justice for years if not decades did so through random chance rather than cunning masterplans. The reality is they are all too human with messy psychological and physical lives – that’s not to suggest that all those with psychological problems are serial killers. Should go without saying, but I did just want to be clear.

Dexter is based on a novel I have not read that plays the game of what if a serial killer was a hero, someone who in their tarnished way actually works for good, but all the while sating their urge to kill.

The premise is as comic book fantasy as the Walking Dead.

The TV series of Dexter is a compelling on in large part because of the cast. Michael C. Hall as Dexter Morgan, geeky blood splatter expert for Miami Metro Homicide and the heroic serial killer, carries the part beautifully. He’s believable as someone troubled, who battles with his lack of emotion to do the right thing and act morally. His monologues, and dialogues with the image of his dead foster father and moral weathervane are a hallmark of the series. As are Dexter’s near break-downs, the spiralling into chaos. His desire to trust and love other human beings always thwarted.

The Miami Metro Homicide family are also what makes this series. They are not the most professional, do dally with corruption, but most of them want to do a good job. They are a family, complete with squabbles and changing allegiances. It’s just a shame that some of the interesting stuff happens between seasons, and for plot reasons. I’m thinking particularly of the relationships between María LaGuerta and Angel Batista.

Each series attracted some top-notch actors, including Jimmy Smits, John Lithgow, Edward James Olmos, and Charlotte Rampling in key roles in the seasonal story arcs that pits Dexter, the serial killer targeting killers who evade justice against other monsters in human form… often with monumental personal cost to Dexter, his (foster) sister Debra Morgan, and/or other members of his family, work colleagues, and close circle of friends.

And therein lies the problem I have with the series. The first year went with the big one – his unknown big brother being a rival serial killer terrorising Miami, who becomes romantically entangled with Debra, and sets Dexter up for an almighty fall as Miami’s most prolific serial killer. It’s hard, dramatically, to match that. Generally, the series does, but I do wonder about casual viewers, or those who came to it later and didn’t catch up with the box set. I suspect a lot of WTF moments, also known as a high reliance on the ‘previously on Dexter’ summaries.

It is a beautifully shot series, though not as arty as Hannibal. I haven’t looked, but if there isn’t there should be fanfic mixing up the Dexter world with CSI Miami.

There are a lot of people who are fascinated in serial killers, and in a small percentage that fascination is unhealthy. On a quick search of the internet, I wasn’t too surprised to see some individuals who committed crimes who had those crimes and their motivations linked to Dexter. A couple of real-life cases attempted to use methods depicted on the series to disguise their crimes – mostly unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The fact that there will be those viewing who will want to emulate what they see is a thing that creators of what are essentially police procedural dramas do need to take into consideration. More of a risk with documentaries, I would suggest, and while this might seem dismissive, it’s not as though people didn’t do these things before popular culture showed them. Fact is that Dexter Morgan, like Hannibal Lector, is a totally fictional character who obeys the demands of storytelling, which is not the same as reality.

All-in-all, I’d recommend the series as a well-crafted and acted drama, with moments of dark comedy and visceral – often psychological – horror.

Foyle’s War

 

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The Old Town of Hastings

Foyle’s War hits three things I enjoy: detective stories set in the English countryside, World War II, and spies. The series is a guilty pleasure, though. Guilty because while generally good, it’s no Endeavour. Foyle’s War is slow-paced, fairly predictable, and the cast not known for their dynamism.

 

I watched all of it not too long ago. I’d seen all the WWII stories before – some of the stories more than once – but had not seen the Cold War ones before. In fact, they’d somehow passed me by. I only watched them because they were part of a box set I’d picked up on special, and I’m really pleased I did because I hugely enjoyed them. They had a spark missing from the WWII ones. Actually, thinking about it, it shouldn’t be that surprising given Foyle’s desire from the outset to work for the spooks rather than the plod. It’s a tension always there, but underplayed.

Michael Kitchen underplays Foyle, which is a style that doesn’t engage immediately. It’s tempting to think of the show as sleepy. As full of the English stereotypes of reservation. But, clearly Foyle is an introvert. Clear in an unshowy way. Difficult to pull off, and in unskilled hands would be terrible. Kitchen nails it, and when you know what to watch for it makes the show better than first expected.

I have always liked Honeysuckle Weeks as awkward Sam, the driver. The character is a fascinating one. She’s a young woman born into the cosy inter-war years and village vicarage. I imagine a girl who would have been stifled by that, but yet make do. Because you just did. Instead, the war came with opportunities she takes with a chaotic enthusiasm. Duty is her by-word, but there’s something else there. Bubbling under the surface of conformity is an unstructured intelligence. I wonder what she would have been with a mentor able to challenge the chaos. To channel it. Her role as a London Labour politician’s wife and MI5 employee in the last few stories capture all that. The problem is forgetting her husband was in the Special Operations Executive (SOE)…

That is the thing that irks about the series. Big things like the relationships that vanish without trace when they should be mentioned. Sam’s relationship with Foyle’s pilot son Andrew is beautifully done, and then ditched unconvincingly. A shame.

The other character who I didn’t think quite worked was DS Milner, and he started off as a promising idea. An injured soldier from the start of the conflict forced into a job he doesn’t enjoy and back into a marriage with a wife who rejected him. I think the actor couldn’t quite carry it off, but also it’s a difficult storyline to maintain as a secondary tale.

I took great pleasure in the little chats between Anthony Horowitz, the show’s main writer and creator, and historian Terry Charman from the Imperial War Museum after many of the later stories and included in the DVD box set. I really enjoy learning more about SOE, Bletchley Park, and the general flow of WWII in Europe.

The series didn’t baulk from difficult moral quandaries of class, race, gender, even queerness. Also the politics of the time. In the Cold War stories Communism features – both foreign fights and local socialist fights. As does extreme right wing politics. That latter even more pronounced during the WWII years with a stand out episode featuring Charles Dance as a thinly disguised Mosely.

Of course there are a few thinly disguised historical figures brought to the series. My favourite is Hilda Pierce, heavily modelled on the amazing Vera Atkins. She is in the WWII stories as a wonderful foil to Foyle, who comes into her own in the post-war years. It’s a lovely treatment of some interesting questions, paramount of which is the debate about women in distinctly grubby and dangerous war work. Yes, the real failures of SOE are explored, very much with an eye on the human impact. Those co-opted volunteers had families who mostly had no idea what their family members were up to.

One of the delights of the series was how it was able to incorporate newly discovered facts in its fictional world. Its attention to detail lovely, with only a very few errors. The most glaring of which was the cinema in a coastal town lit up at night while the blackout was still very much in force.

Foyle’s War is a cosy crime drama when all is said and done, but the added WWII and Cold War skulduggery and moral ambiguities lift it.

NineWorlds London Geekfest, 4 – 6 August 2017

This was my fifth 9Worlds London Geekfest, and it is a convention firmly in my calendar. It was in its second year at the Hammersmith Novotel, and once again the hotel staff were pretty good. Check in was certainly a much better experience for me this year. I do love the fact that the hotel fielded a team in the Shark game.

This year I had actually submitted two panel ideas, and I was delighted that both were accepted. The convention programme planners assigned me to two other panels: both squee (a word going in the Oxford English Dictionary). One on queer Dax (Star Trek), and one on the transgressive nature (alleged) of Miss Phryne Fisher. That last one proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that 9Worlds is not all about the SF/F/H.

This year is also the second year that I have done the 9Worlds one weekend, then the World SF Convention (WorldCon) the next. This time the second convention is in another country – Finland. More on that later. So, I intended on pacing myself, including in the hotel department. That meant I arrived on Friday morning rather than Thursday. Sad to miss the Cheese and Cheese – from all the reports I saw, people enjoyed it immensely.

Anyway, on arrival I met with several friends, but I sought out a space to get my head into panel space. Especially since I’d been told that based on the pre-con selections on the Grenadine app the first panel I was going on was among the most popular. In Cremant, the huge room, no less. That panel was one I had put forward and proposed to explore the police in the supernatural novel series of Ben Aaronovitch (PC Peter Grant) and Paul Cornell (Shadow Police) from the points of view of three women who work in policing. First thing a disclaimer – none of us were talking from the points of view of our agencies, but from our generic experiences. I’m really pleased that the audience enjoyed it – and the questions were thought-provoking and intelligent. Far from easy, but respectful, particularly about our views on inclusion and diversity in the modern UK police forces. I said it at the panel, I love the fact that both Aaronovitch and Cornell ensured their books are fairly representative of London, which the police do try to bring – following Sir Robert Peel’s ethos the police being of the people to police the people. The police lead in some areas, and do lag behind in others. We spoke about many other things, but that’s an important point for me. To bring home the point, quite a few colleagues of mine took part in Brighton’s LGBT+ Pride march on the Saturday of the convention, led by our Director General flying the rainbow flag that also has our emblem.

I’m a participant at a similar panel at WorldCon, and I’m fascinated to see how it will be different.

The rest of my Friday and all of Saturday I could attend what panels I wanted to, catch up with friends, and spend a bit of time in my hotel room to decompress. Plus admire the imagination of cosplayers – highlights were the 13th Doctor, the TARDIS full of bras, and the lemmings for their choreography. Loads of others, but they stand out.

I attended Marina Berlin’s talk on women writing about war, which skated over a complex topic. As she said, there is a long history of women writing war in SF/F, but she limited herself to three authors writing war in the 21st century – Naomi Novik, Karin Lowacher, and Kameron Hurley. I’ve not read Novik or Lowacher, but devoured Hurley’s Belle Dame Apocrypha. Berlin compared them with tropes identified in men writing war in SF/F, which irked even though I could see where she was coming from. Still, it gave me some pointers for the WorldCon panel I’m moderating on women writing Military SF at WorldCon.

On Saturday I attended the panel on race in SF/F with a wonderfully diverse panel in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds. The panel’s strength lay in discussing the rich variety of experience through which they both write and read/consume. Pretty much all of them had grown up in one culture, some as part of a diaspora, others not, then all moved elsewhere. I agree with them that SF/F’s gift is the ability to grab tropes and tear them apart, and the issue of SF/F being metaphorical. They discussed the damage caused by people being scared of accusations of cultural appropriation – but that there is of course a responsibility to check and avoid stereotyping and making the alien other exotic. White-washing is damaging, and a panellist noted that other cultures (Han Chinese was singled out) do the same and it doesn’t make it any less damaging. They also discussed complex issues to do with translating from one (mostly English, but not exclusively) flooding out other voices. All in all, a thought-provoking panel.

I attended John J Johnston’s talk about archaeology in Doctor Who, which was great fun.

Sunday was my day of panels. I was on three, and I am so glad for the generous gap between them. My panels also bounced from squee to serious to squee.

The queer Dax panel was a lot of fun, but made some really good points. Neth is a great moderator who took pains to ensure that everyone on the panel had a different queer perspective. I had been a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to contribute much and I had to confess that I’m not a Trek fan. I do love the love of the Trek fans, though, especially those on this panel. But, my fears were unfounded, and once my brain busted through the laying Stargate memories over DS9 ones, all was good.

I had also been a bit nervous about the Robots, AI, and the Labour Market panel I had put forward, was moderating, and was in the second biggest room. Back in February 2017 I listened to a BBC World Service programme about robots and AI, and the fear of them taking over work as we know it. It was an excellent panel (available here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04rq0px?ocid=socialflow_twitter)  that I thought ripe for discussion at 9Worlds. Turned out I was correct with an incredibly knowledgeable panel from both a diverse set of writing and other work experience. To open up to the audience meant we could only really talk for about 45 minutes, and we could have spoken for a lot longer. I fear we only scratched the surface of some difficult questions, but I am pleased that the point of ‘AI’ coding being value neutral was totally trashed. It’s actually a really dangerous idea thinking that coding is value neutral. We also brought in a fair bit of real world stuff, and the role that SF can play – again the let’s explore and bust open the tropes point. I think the panel also strongly made the point that definitions matter – most of the robots and AIs cited as doing certain things are neither robots or AI. The audience again didn’t disappoint with some excellent questions, and also some good Twitter conversations.

Final panel for me of the convention and a fabulous one about just how transgressive the Honourable Phryne Fisher is. Wonderfully, one of the panellists cosplayed as Dr Mack and there are some fab pics out there of her with some Miss Fisher cosplayers. While the show does have its problems, the love we all have for it shone through (I adore the fact that Pat Cadigan is now going to give it a go on the strength of our enthusiasm!!). Personally, I am grateful for the audience member who knows far more about Melbourne’s socio-economic history than I do who chose to share that knowledge fully in the spirit of 9Worlds.

Then, all too fast, the inevitable end of another wonderful 9Worlds. My only regret – not being able to go to all the panels I wanted to, and not catching up with all the people I wanted to. Some of them I hope to see in Helsinki, but otherwise, next time.

I tweeted at some point that if there was a motto for 9Worlds it would be to: keep on learning!

Finally…

I could just link to a bunch of articles written by friends and acquaintances about the casting of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who because pretty much all of them have written what I’ve been thinking since the reveal on Sunday afternoon.

I hadn’t planned to watch it. Watching tennis bores me (sorry), but not as much as the post match guff. I also refused to allow myself to think that I would be that interested. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve liked every single actor and performer who has played Doctor Who over the nearly 55 years the series has been running. Genuinely, whenever people ask me who my favourite Doctor is I say all of them because it’s true. I learned a long time ago when I was researching and writing my Masters thesis on the show and its fans that my appreciation of each actor and era depends mostly on my mood at the time.

My interest in the show has ebbed and flowed, too, and not necessarily because of the quality of the stories. I loved the 2017 series, even though my interest had been ebbing a bit. As I have said often at convention panels when I’m talking about the show and my relationship with it, I am far less of a fan of the post 2005 series than I was from the years 1979 (or so) to 1984, and then 1987 to 1989. My fandom then was intense, by the way – publishing fanzines, rocking up to day events in costume, winning trivia quizzes, and writing to the writers and actors. One reason why my viewing has changed is because I know too many people working on the show – either directly, or on the industry around it. I’ve kept away from secrets – that’s never really appealed anyway – but it’s different.

I still love to show. Have missed very few episodes. Rewatch a fair number. Enjoy writing about it still, and writing in it (if you consider the widest possible definition of what the family of Doctor Who is… like I do).

So, it was with low expectations that I kept an eye on the Wimbledon men’s singles final and on Twitter. I had heard no serious rumours, but japed along with mates, and started to feel a little bit nervous. The people I know who normally know these things (or fairly close to guess correctly) didn’t know.

And then finally the tennis stopped, and the post match guff, and the 60 second clip of a person in a coat and hoodie stepping through a lush green forest… I blinked at the feet shot… then the hand with the key… thought no. A tease… and then the pan around as she pulled down her hood and that little quirky smile as she sees the TARDIS…

I feel little chills still as I re-watch it. As I think about it. I smile.

Jodie Whittaker is the Doctor in those few seconds.

My friends and others have written eloquently and passionately about the hatred of some. I’m not going to add to it. Nick Barlow very cleverly lances the fan sense of ownership and outrage when their thing does something they think it shouldn’t (On the new Doctor, fandom’s reaction and how it all reaches back to a Who story from 1980), and Una McCormack published two excellent pieces about the misogyny of some fans, one written after hearing some people being angry on the radio and the other earlier the same day channelling Ursula LeGuin. All three are brilliant. As is this by Chris Mead, and this excellent piece by Sarah Gailey is sheer perfection.

My piece in the book Queers Dig Time Lords traces how my coming out as gay was inextricably intwined with my love of Doctor Who and its fans. No, it’s not as simple as me having crushes on the companions (though that didn’t not happen in some cases). The theoretical basis of my Masters thesis was queer theory – about otherness. About how those who are ‘othered’ seek out those who are like them… and I found a very few others like me in the amazing world of Doctor Who fans I grew up in as a teenager and young adult. Deep breath here, but I am not exaggerating when I say they saved my life.

Now, as I reach my half century, the wonderful people I have met through this barmy show of many guises (not just the actor who plays the lead role, but the show itself – why it’s possible for so many to love, hate, be indifferent to each offering) are opening up what gender means. I have never felt comfortable being a girl, or even a woman; no. More uncomfortable about the Western cultural pressures of femininity. It’s still not a wholly comfortable fit for me, but I am trying out the label ‘non-binary’, and then trying to grapple what that means in the sense of my homosexuality.

Along comes Missy. Brilliant in her own right, but clearly also an experimental push from Steven Moffat and the rest of the Doctor Who crew.

The production crews over the years have toyed about casting a woman to play the Doctor. Most people think it was a tease – and maybe at times it was – but I think it was just that TV just couldn’t. Unless as a joke (as in the Curse of Fatal Death). Without really thinking about it (I have never played the game of casting anyone in the role, but just having faith in the decisions made and never actually being disappointed) I guess I must have thought that an older woman would play the part as an spinstery geek. Think Amelia Rumford…

For all of how Doctor Who has pushed boundaries, it is also a remarkably small c conservative show. Radical as well as reactionary. The old series as well as the new, and also the books and comics in between and running parallel. Television production has changed over the last fifty years, and Doctor Who has both led the charge with new techniques and resisted others. None of this in an easy progression. It’s always been a few steps forward, a few back or sideways, and a reset here and there. It’s made mistakes, and been absolutely brilliant – in the eyes of different beholders those mistakes and moments of genius have occurred at the same time.

I am gay, a woman interested sexually in women, but more comfortable with the idea of gender being fluid and me being more male than female. I am aromantic (and so, so pleased to know that term now!). I’ve had some fabulous relationships, and one bad one, and now am happily single.

… and one of the things that struck me on Sunday, which surprised me,  was just how cute that little quirky smile is on the Doctor’s face as she sees the TARDIS and the key materialises in her hand.

So, it’s not just about representation and feminism – both powerfully positive things, by the way – but for the first time ever in the 50 years I’ve been watching this show and reading the books I think I have fallen a little bit in love with the Doctor. Like the guys and gals who fell in love with Davison, Tennant, McGann, Smith, Capaldi, McCoy, the Bakers, Troughton… actually, all of them.

It’s a feeling I never thought I would ever feel, and it’s a feeling I’m finding I like.

The X-Files… extreme paranoia

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J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington DC © SJG 2013

I had just re-watched all of this rather odd little but wildly successful US TV series before they announced its brief revival last year. My thoughts on that I have copied below, taken from my previous blog-site. Most of my observations from then still stand, but some have shifted because of how the world has changed, politically. Plus, of course, there now exists six additional episodes with our old friends and tropes.

Overall, I am surprised by how fresh and lively the first few seasons still are. What caught the imagination of the world back in the 1990s still catches. It’s not until principal filming moved from Canada to California that the shine starts to dull. The Doggett and Reyes year suffers from the show drowning in its own heavy mythology. A shame, because those two characters, and Scully, are great and could have done so much. C’est la vie.

I like the second movie more each time I watch it. There’s an odd moment in it when Scully and Mulder are in the Hoover Building, flanking a portrait of then President George W. Bush. The X-Files theme tune echoes, and they give each other a weird little look. Then knowing, now…

I watched the first two episodes of the 2016 season close to its transmission. I enjoyed them, but work got in the way. I bought the DVD, and then decided to watch the whole series again. Glad I did. I do wonder how comprehensible five episodes of the six would be to the more casual viewer, even with the voice-overs and flash-backs.

The exception – ironically given the in-jokes – was Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster. Great fun, silly, and caught the essence of the brilliant stand-alone stories of maximum quirk from the first few seasons. It’s also a good tale, imaginatively told, with some fascinating characters.

The first and last episodes of the run top and tail it all, and when watched during the first sixty days of the current presidency of the USA is bizarre. I mentioned in my blog below my thoughts on how the shift in real-world politics also affected the show. My thoughts have sharpened on this.

Most of the X-Files aired during the Bill Clinton administration. There were conspiracies and lies, just as there had been during other presidencies, which is what the show picked up on and ran with. People believed some of what was depicted in the show. I remember smart people at my work who bought into the ‘based on truth’ advertising campaign way back at the start. I talked this over with a friend recently, and they observed that the series caught that comforting type of conspiracy theory where ridiculous things are believed of the government because while presenting a punching-bag to hit at, it simultaneously reassured them that the government was competent.

The 2016 season was made and aired during the end of the Obama presidency; eight years of bonkers conspiracy theories, but not a lot of actual scandal. An interesting shift in the socio-political zeitgeist that the first and last episodes gleefully dive in to play. The role of the internet in airing huge and whacky conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ is poked at, as is the problem of how to work out what is true and what isn’t.

And now we are in a world where during the first days and weeks of a new administration the lines between rumour-mongers, partisan propagandists, and conspiracy theorists and official announcements by the Executive Branch are short. Congress – both main parties, by the way – is also playing these games, but the sound and vision of the White House communications is deafening and blinding those others through sheer volume and boldness. What was obviously planned in an amusing little TV SF show to push boundaries to extreme possibilities mere months ago now looks woefully timid.

I enjoyed my re-watch. I will always have a soft spot for the show, and I am glad they made the 2008 movie and the 2016 episodes. Only one episode truly stood out, though, which makes me ponder just how bankable nostalgia is on a sustainable basis. By the way, by bankable I don’t just mean money; I include the emotional and intellectual investment by viewers and fans.

I’ll end this with a small observation I spotted this time around: the X-Files traces the history of the mobile telephone. At first they are rare, car-bound (pretty much) bricks. The models our heroes use change each season, but most of the show’s run came before cameras became intrinsic to mobile phones. I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone has observed that the number of UFO sightings has decreased as the number of phones with cameras and internet connections increased, with a fairly obvious assumed causality between the two phenomena.

The X-Files, re-watched, re-assessed, & re-analysed

Posted originally on 5th January 2014.

When I was in Washington DC in September 2013 I was lucky enough to visit the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover building (pictured above). As a fan of a fair few fictional depictions of FBI agents (Clarice Starling, Dana Scully) it was a highlight of my visit.

On my return to London I decided to watch the TV series I like set in DC. I had the West Wing and the X-Files to choose from, and I plumped for the X-Files because someone had pointed out it was twenty years old.

Twenty years! Gosh. I remembered watching it when I still lived with my parents in their new house in North Sydney. Friends David and Kyla were about the only other folk I knew who watched those first few episodes on its first run on Aussie TV; they because of the links to Kolchack the Night Stalker me because it was like Project Bluebook and had the FBI in it. People picked up on it on its second run, if my memory serves me correctly, and then Australia went nuts about it. Seriously nuts. Gillian Anderson visited and got mobbed. It rated highly, and it was the first ‘genre show’ that got discussed by people not into sci-fi and all that at work. Well, so far as I was aware, at any rate. Though some work colleagues of mine had believed the line about the stories being based on truth and thought it was a series of dramatised documentaries. Oh, dear.

Anyway, I watched all the episodes and the two movies. I didn’t watch the Lone Gunmen series interspersed with the season of the X-Files that they should be. Not too much of a problem, that, although I did have to look up the plot synopses to make sense of one X-Files episode. I love the Lone Gunmen, by the way, just was one of a few underwhelmed by their short-lived series.

Things that struck me were just how good the first few seasons are. Then it seemed to get a bit lost in its own hype, and while I don’t think the quality dips there is a change and it becomes less enjoyable, somehow. Not bad, just missable. That’s roughly when the filming moves from Canada to California, so way before Doggett and Reyes get assigned. I think it’s because it loses a quirky sense of humour and takes itself and its own mythology way too seriously.

Given that it was mostly filmed in Canada those first few seasons get DC amazingly well. Obviously the production crew had access to interior shots of the Hoover Building, and external shots would have been easy. The geography made sense, and many of the first set of tales took place in the states close by to DC. I was also rather impressed that places that looked like the DC, Maryland or Virginia locales were used, too. I don’t think there are too many series that would bother if they didn’t need to.

And I loved all the little jokes about how much the X-Files unit costs the FBI in travel expenses.

I know there are a few reasons put forward by various, including Chris Carter and the production crew, about why the X-Files suddenly dived in popularity. I think it was partially that they ran out of stories after nine years, without having to recycle the same old. Also the bizarre paranoia thing about the US government and crazy conspiracies got a bit weird with real-life. Without ducking off into a history lesson, the fact is the USA is no different from any other country or political system in that in order to keep the status quo ‘safe’ there are steps that need to be taken that run counter to that system and its beliefs in its own status as ‘right’ or ‘most ideal’. Hoover pioneered many of those techniques with the early days of the FBI, and he and the Bureau weren’t alone. And, yes, of course they run the risk of being hooked up to a political ideology, and running rampant. There are well-documented cases of this, which makes for fertile ground to sow and reap great stories. In the early Bill Clinton years this all made sense. It wasn’t real, well not excessively so, so we could have some fun with the idea of a global conspiracy hiding aliens.

What fascinates me is just how George W. Bush’s presidency made it impossible to have fun with all this. Why? Because it became too believable. And I don’t think Barak Obama’s presidency is one where having a bit of fun with preposterous government conspiracies is viable for a TV series. Too many people believe the nonsensical – ‘birthers’, UN spoiling to attack the USA, ‘Obamacare’ having ‘death panels’ as a medical treatment strategy…

Yeah. The X-Files was a product of its time.

But, the X-Files was a lot more than just the conspiracy arc. The last time I watched the series (just before the second movie came out) I was really struck by how good many of the standalone episodes are. The oddball in particular. The ones where we never know just what it really was that caused the murders, or disappearances, or whatever it was our FBI Special Agents had to investigate. This re-watch confirmed that for me, and I still adore War of the Coprophages, Humbug, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose – just to name a few.

I hadn’t noticed the recurring insect people arc until this time.

One of the things that makes the X-Files enjoyable to re-watch are the characters. Despite neither Duchnovy or Anderson being particularly lively, both bring their characters to life, and their characters are pretty cool. There is character development, particularly with Scully, and by the last few seasons she’s rather weary in her shouldering responsibility for Mulder’s mission in life. Her reaction to loving him is fascinating. Anderson grew, I think, as an actor during the nine years she worked on the series and performs the role an increasingly assured but subtle way. And, hurrah, the writers didn’t screw up her characterisation.

Mulder is the main character, though, and even when he’s off hiding in the last few seasons his mark is indelible.

During the last year or so I’ve been reading up on Jungian theory and Meyers-Briggs. Yeah, that stuff that certain management and HR gurus like to whitter on about. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff gets it wrong, which leaves it open to a lot of (justified) attack. However, those attacks were so obvious that Myers-Briggs warned against mis-using it… If only people would read original texts. Even read the stuff from those trained in it – some of whom are trained psychologists! (By the way, any critique that starts off with or includes that Myers and Briggs were ‘housewives’ betrays itself as lazy at best and also sexist.)

Anyway, my take on it all is this: it’s a theoretical model through which to try to explore / explain the different ways in which people understand the world, which manifests as personality. It’s based on models and ideas that have existed for millennia (yes, really). It’s being refined all the time as understanding grows, particularly in relation to physiology. But, it’s a difficult area. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist. I’ve never had formal training in it. I do know that it doesn’t pretend to be a series of robust experiments, and it is susceptible to confirmation bias… but, it’s a tool that I’ve found useful in terms of understanding why I react the way I do and why it’s different to other people’s reactions. I’ve also found a bunch of folk, amateurs like me, who like exploring this stuff. Key word being ‘exploring’, there, not ‘believing in’. And part of that exploring is playing with it.

So… just doing a quick Google and it seems that there are some folk out there who argue Mulder is an INFP or INTJ, and argue against anyone who ‘types’ Mulder as an INTP. Well I think Mulder is an INTP… and it’s not wishful thinking. It was a continuing series of ‘OMG, that! Wow. He is so INTP’ as I watched the whole series.

I’ve been ‘typed’ professionally by different people – first time in Australia, second and third times in the UK – over the last 20 odd years. I’ve consistently come out as INTP. To spell out the letters to those of you who are probably thinking ‘WTF?’ – I’m an introvert (meaning I need to re-charge in quiet), intuitive (meaning I use my imagination to take in the world rather than my five senses), a thinker (meaning I consider logic over consideration of people) and a perceiver (meaning I keep my options open). That’s my four letter combination out of sixteen possible permutations.

For many, that’s enough. For others there is a slightly more complicated but ultimately more rewarding approach to do with functions and how they appear in the use stack.

Okay, a little diversion. The idea is that these are all preferred ways of taking in and interpreting the world. They are not the be all and end all. The common analogy is handedness – most people are either right or left handed, but if their dominant side was incapacitated in some way can use their other side. Some people are genuinely ambidextrous. So, in the Myers-Briggs world this translates most easily for those who are extroverted / introverted – plenty of introverts can extrovert (and vice versa). If you’re interested, Susan Cain’s book is rather good, as is her TED talk. Easy to search for 🙂

Function theory operates a fairly simple formula which looks at what the sixteen letters represent, asks whether the Sensing/Intuition and Thinking/Feeling pairs are extroverted or introverted and what order they come in – there are four preferred and the remaining four are what becomes dominant when I’m stressed.

For me as an INTP my function stack are, in order: introverted thinking (Ti, meaning I think and analyse obsessively – cannot switch it off, feel better when my brain is working on complex problems); extroverted intuition (Ne, meaning bouncing around from possibility to possibility); introverted sensing (Si, meaning I have a pretty good encyclopaedic memory of things that have happened before); and extroverted feeling (Fe, meaning I care obsessively about what other people think). The below brief explanation summarises it beautifully:

Ti: *masterminding* So, lets find a concise explanation for how this works…
Ne: *extremely excited* IDEAS! FROM MARS! On x and y and z and what about sigma??
Si: *serious and knowledgeable* Well, previous experience tells us that….
Fe: *worried* I do hope nobody minds…
(It’s from some folks on Tumblr – © 2011-14 Red Striped Alibis)

The higher up the stack, so the theory goes, the more developed the process is. The lower down the less developed. They all work together, too, with their varying levels of development. And all that is affected by personal experience, growth, etc, which is why we are none of us clones. But, it is scary when you discover other people who think and feel in ways similar to you, and even scarier when they’ve had similar experiences growing up despite being in different countries – not all English speaking.

Okay, enough about me. What about Mulder?

If he’s INTP then he is Ti, Ne, Si and Fe.
If he’s INFP then he is Fi, Ne, Si and Te.
If he’s INTJ then he is Ni, Te, Fi and Se.

So, what does that mean?

If he’s INFP then he values and considers importance, beliefs and worth first; interprets situations and relationships and picks up meaning and interconnections to other contexts; then reviews and recalls past experiences and seeks detailed data; and then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts.

If he’s INTJ then he foresees implications, transformations and likely effects; then segments and organises for efficiency and systematises his thoughts; then values and considers importance, beliefs and worth; and then experiences and acts in the immediate context.

Yeah, I don’t think he’s an INTJ at all. Most of the time he’s in trouble because he hasn’t foreseen the implications of what’s going on. His acting in the immediate context is usually because he’s a trained FBI agent. He’s clearly got Ne in his stack, and fairly high up, too (‘extreme possibilities’ is his thing, after all).

What about INFP? Hm. Maybe. But I’m not sure he puts other people first ahead of his quest for the truth.

Regardless of whether he’s INTP or INFP – two of the stack are the same for both, it’s the primary and last ones that are different – and their placings do have an effect – he’s consistently driven to find out the answer to the mysteries presented, and contrary to an idea that pops up when people summarise the characters from the X-Files, he doesn’t automatically plump for the paranormal. In fact, he spends some of the series actively rejecting the idea of the aliens running everything (against Scully and against the evidence, arguably).

I think it does boil down to whether he’s driven by the need to analyse or the need to consider people’s beliefs.

Review: To Walk Invisible

Sally Wainwright is one of Britain’s best TV writers and directors, and her two-hour drama about Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë and their brother Branwell, was a sheer joy to watch. It aired on BBC1 on 29 December 2016, but I watched it last night on iPlayer. I just had to double-check that it was in fact two hours, it flew by.

The writing – unsurprisingly – was top-notch, and along with both the beautiful direction and acting, the show brought to life the complex internal worlds of three extraordinary women and the business of writing when novels were novel. I was reminded of some of Kameron Hurley’s writing about publishing today, plus the ‘scandal’ about Elena Ferrante that broke this year… not much has changed, really, in the 175 or so years since when the bulk of the show was set.

You can tell that Wainwright loves Yorkshire and knows it intimately; while some scenes were shot with familiar framing of the moors and Victorian housing, none of it was cliched. Given the various TV and film versions of the most famous of the novels – Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre – it would be easy to keep the landscape bleak and miserable. Wainwright draws out the beauty of the place in all of its seasons. Art and place – inseparable.

It also weaves in their relationship with their brother, Branwell, and their father, as well as the realities of middle class Victorian life in the counties. I was blown away by how fabulously the story I know reasonably well was brought to life. Lived-in life. The extraordinarily fine balance of showing the terrible behaviour of Branwell and yet also drawing out the reasons why. Both Adam Nagaitis and Troy Tipple were superb as the ‘troubled’ Branwell (as adult and child, respectively). Actually, all the main cast shone: the different personalities of the sisters, and their strong love for each other, their father, and brother (despite everything) – all difficult to portray without slipping into caricature. Finn Atkins was wonderful as the business-minded, easy-to-dismiss-as-repressed-but-actually-fiery eldest sister Charlotte. Chloe Pirrie brought an expressiveness to Emily (her ongoing exasperation about Charlotte changing her mind entirely believable, and her reasons to not accompany her sisters to London convincing), and like others watching at the same time I did keep expecting her to actually, physically lash out and twat someone. Charlie Murphy could have just been fragile as Anne, but while her actions could be seen as being swept along by whichever sister held sway, I think she weighed up her options and did the required deed. She clearly saw the need to accompany Charlotte to London to prove the three writers published as Messrs Bell were not one author but three sisters.


Back in 1993 I wrote a short story about a woman’s love for Charlotte Brontë. It was published back then in an Australian magazine called ClitLit. I’m reproducing my story here because it just seems apt. Please note that I retain the copyright for it.

Slice of Life

Faded fragments, paper dreams. I want to forget you, but I can’t. I see an actor’s face looking like you staring from billboards around this hot summer city. Your name, as though a crowd-puller, emblazoned everywhere. And the songs about you, beating out from record shops, pull on my heart the way you did, all those years ago.

*

I’ve just moved into another flat, full of strangers. We’re settled now, listening to Madonna and watching some dancers shimmy-shimmy to her on the small TV screen. Through the sound, Jim asks if I’ve got a boyfriend. It’s a question I’ve expected, been asked a million times before with that same longing I hear in his voice. Please say no because I want you.

With a silly grin, I shake my head, wondering if he gets the hint. Useless shouting intimate details in this noise.

Sean passes me a joint, and I pass it on. Not my scene. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you know there’s no point.

Lull in the video clip. To my left Chris and Angel are arguing about Stein and Toklas: ‘Bull they fucked.’

They did, actually, but I don’t tell them that. The music starts up again making it impossible, anyway.

A woman enters. Miranda. Like the beauty of the classics, she stands haloed by light and her hair. Her Nicole Kidman hair. She is wearing her normal white flowing inner city dress, thinking she looks like one of the girls of Hanging Rock as she drifts her hand down along the door frame. She sees me stare, and smiles, shy.

The talk drifts with the smoke. It’s a good welcoming party and I know I’m going to get on well with these people. They’re nice, easy going, unquestioning but they still involve you in things that are important. Most leave me alone, knowing that I don’t really want to talk, just watch and listen. I’ve already told them I’m tired and don’t want to play. They respect that, which is why I think this place is going to work out.

The couples drift off, the singles slink home. I stay, ensconced in the lounge, thinking about things I’ve done and seen and felt. I am alone, yet accompanied by sweet memories.

Now it’s four thirty. The darkest time of the night. Flick on the TV because I’m feeling bored and sleepless. Ride the remote till I find Doctor Who. I watch the antics of the curly-haired one, wondering how Scott was getting on. I remember I met him back in London when this show first started. Glorious year, back then. Thirty years it must be… Must be.

The announcer’s just said Doctor Who is thirty and I met Scott racing to get home to watch this new sci-fi show amidst all the JFK stuff. He must be in his forties now, even fifty.

Miranda comes out into the room, drawn by the noise of Time Lords killing Time Lords. Oh, to be a lord of time, to control it, make it bend to your will rather than be swept along with it…

She stands at the door again, this time in loose silk pyjamas. She speaks, ‘Charlotte, I know what you are.’ I hear the gentle catch in her low voice. ‘What you want.’ I nod, turn the TV off, and go with her like the virgin Madonna once was, and we all know that’s a lie.

*

Crowds. Christmas crowds making the Pitt Street Mall almost impenetrable. And hot. Sweat pours through my pale Irish skin, dampening my loose clothing as sure as any longed-for downpour. Perspiration drips into my eyes, stinging, and I wipe them just to be able to see where I’m going. Christmas in Australia still frazzles me, that weird feeling of seeing cotton snow in weather that can melt plastic.

I twist and weave through the people, dodging parcels and bags and sticky kids. A gaggle of men, fresh out of uni, charge in a laughing row and part the crowd like Moses and the sea. Girls giggle past, staring at dress shops, wishing for the flares that were dreadful first time round. Rap versions of carols thud out of music shops, and yet it’s still only November. I can smell the smell of sweets drive through the fried food scent so common here at lunch time.

Lunch. My stomach tells me I want food, so I dive into a cafe crowded with sagging grandmothers and their grandchildren on early release from school, all babbling in the pre-Christmas excitement. Some children stare at me as I eat, knowing something different is before them even though I look no different from anything else they’ve seen.

I leave again, and resume my quest. My quest for a present for Miranda, love of my life now. Not a Christmas present (Miranda doesn’t believe) but a present of congratulations. Miranda finishing her university years with her PhD after years of uncertain soul searching. And her mother had written on her sweetly perfumed paper, extolling her praises, and I feel proud too. Maybe a book would be good. One of your books, as I see them stacked in the stores to take advantage of the film. Yet, I wonder if I could bear her touching something so bound up in you.

*

I lie in the half light of the moon’s silver shine casting in from a window. I am naked, warmed by the glow of a woman beside me. Warmed also by the memory of you. They say first love is the one you remember the best. Maybe. I remember the wild moors we both loved — the wind — even the cold driving rain. Impossible to ignore feeling when all around was so sensual, across these ages…

A now familiar hand pushes against my arm, pushing away my memories, bringing me back to now. A voice — soft, husky — speaks. Miranda’s, sweet after the tempest; ‘Where do you come from?’

‘That would be telling,’ I say, aware the joke catches on my tongue as it always does.

‘You seem so English, but I’ve heard you talk to Jim and Sean about other places you’ve lived. Ireland…’

Silence as I try to think. ‘I’ve travelled a lot,’ I finally say, fudging the answer I know I must eventually give. Miranda forgives the evasion, and runs her gentle fingers down my arm, playing. Though tired, I respond.

*

I feel the bite of the wind and rain against my skin as I wait for you. I’ve dressed in man’s clothes: black trousers, white shirt, sleeves rolled up, a waistcoat. I’ve even cut my hair short for you, so no one will know. I look, and see, and smile as you ride your pony to me. So wild, so free, so under the yoke of your family.

We play as we always play. Innocent, wild. Later, people put a name to what we do and call it evil.

And I say I must go, away to London, away from here because people talk and I cannot bear their talk. I remember what you say; ‘Don’t go, please. I love you.’

Be brave, I told you, and both of us cried.

I never told you what I am.

*

Evening, and I enter my home. Miranda is in our room, cleaning, and crying. She hasn’t heard me, doesn’t know I stand watching the scene from the doorway. I wonder, and use her name to question.

She turns, ‘Charlotte. I feel, feel so…’

‘Confused?’ I finish for her.

She moves her arm to point to a sheet of paper on the neatly made bed. A sluggish gesture as though she is completely drained of energy. I move to pick it up, though I already know what it is, what it says. My eyes flick over the spidery cruel words made on the unscented onion paper.

Miranda stands, uncertain, searching for words. ‘I… she was so happy before. All I wanted was to let her know how happy I am.’

‘I know,’ is all I can say.

We look at each other as the moment unfolds, both lost. I have read about this, heard stories, but have never been here before.

‘What about your parents? Do they know? You never talk about them.’

‘My parents died a long time ago.’ I turn, not wanting to talk about that.

‘Oh, Charlotte…’ And I know she has heard the pain of rejection in my voice, and know she has misunderstood my words. But how can I explain?

*

Picture a green land, green as the pictures of tourist leaflets. Impossibly green. A green that counterpoints the grey of the sky and the stone grey of the hovels that are our homes. The colours are still alive to me, as though I only saw them yesterday.

Smell the peat smoke pervading everything and everywhere, and the fresh scent of the rain that falls more times than the sun shines. Hear the sound of cows lowing, dogs barking lazily, and the lolling beat of music made by the men and women who live here. Romantic memories, tinged and altered by the years that separate me from them.

Idyllic scenery hides the pain.

I remember the sound, the awful sound, of soldiers charging the village. The shouts and screams, the clash of metal on metal, and the loud cra-boom of the muskets as they fire death into the people who are my family. Maire and Feargus run, begging me to come, but, panicked, I stay where we’d hidden the day Cromwell’s army exacted revenge.

Night, dark night. Darker than nights are now. Then I ran, not daring to see what I had to leave to live. I was fifteen and had a lot of living to do.

*

‘It wasn’t like that,’ I find myself saying to Miranda, as though my tongue has a mind of its own.

She’s twisting a bit of thumbnail with her fingers. A nervous trait of hers that I find endearing in her, annoying when others do it.

I sigh, and indicate she should sit. She does, beside me. I like the feel of her thigh warmly against mine, but she doesn’t rest her hand on my leg as she normally does. ‘My parents really did die a long time ago. They were killed,’ and my mind stops me from continuing, by Cromwell’s army in Ireland. ‘They never knew about me.’

‘Oh.’

‘There was nothing for them to know. I was only a child.’

‘She says Dad’ll kill me if he ever found out.’

‘Would he?’

‘I don’t know. It’s possible.’ She turns her sweet brown eyes to me, and they dart back and forth, troubled. ‘I don’t know him, not like I thought I knew my mother.’

There are no words to say. We embrace, instead; the hug of friends not lovers.

Miranda breaks the contact, and looks at me. ‘I wasn’t your first, was I?’

‘No.’

‘I knew it.’

Reproachful tone, though not angry. Hurt, and I understand that hurt. ‘She was someone very special,’ I begin, staring at the floor, seeing you there lying on the grass with your skirts all about you, laughing. ‘She died a year after she married.’ Now I see the paper in my hands, accusing me. I burned it, wanting no record of the pain that caused.

‘God, I’m sorry,’ Miranda says in a rush and I know it is the truth.

‘That was a long time ago, too,’ I continue, quietly, and know somehow that I have to go on, and somehow can with Miranda. I need to, for your sake. ‘I worshipped her, and nobody of hers knew me. One glorious summer on the moors and I had to leave her because I couldn’t bear the way she would grow old before me and die, and I…’ I choke off.

Miranda’s hand touches me, and my skin flinches away. ‘You…’ she says, but I shake my head, ashamed that tears are gathering.

I look directly into her eyes and see you stand, accusing. I hear your words; ‘Don’t leave me! Please, don’t…’ But I had to.

We sit in silence for a while. The door to the flat opens. Jim calls out, ‘Miranda? Charlotte? Sean and I are off to see a movie. Want to come?’

‘What?’ calls Miranda, and I hear how glad she is for the distraction.

The Brontës,’ he answers, poking his head around our door. ‘You’re a Brontë fan, aren’t you, Charlotte? You always go on about your namesake. Have you seen the film yet?’

‘No,’ I shake my head. I’ve been avoiding it, trying to avoid the film posters of the Merchant Ivory you. An impossibility.

‘I think we should go,’ says Miranda quietly to me.

I nod, dumbly, and we do go. Maybe it will be all right to see you on the screen like that, to be reminded of you the way others see you. But I cannot stop the stabbing pain in my heart as I remember that last time on the moors, our beloved moors.

When you died, I took your name so you would live forever.

The Pallisers / Brideshead Revisited

img_0165I had never really heard of the Pallisers until a few months ago. I’d not read the books by Anthony Trollope, and had not seen the 1974 BBC-TV series. Two dear friends rectified the latter situation and over the last two weeks I’ve ‘binge-watched’ all 26 episodes.

The TV series first aired throughout 1974, but was disrupted by the politics of that year in the UK. The story is heavily political – the Pallisers centres around Plantagenet Palliser, a Liberal from landed aristocracy and MP, later PM, with a good period of time as Chancellor of the Exchequer. He is wonderfully played by Philip Latham, who captures his austere and proper manner easily but allows us glimpses of his human warmth.

The heart of the family saga is the Lady Glencora, played brilliantly by Susan Hampshire, who marries Plantagenet against her will, but does her duty. She has a fierce sense of romantic justice, and in another time or place would have been either a Suffragist or perhaps Suffragette, or a feminist.

The political rumble-tumble follows Irish Liberal Phineus Finn (Donal McCann) in and out of favour, and of love with an amazing collection of women of various upper stands of English and European society. I grew to like him, his friendship with the Pallisers.

The last few episodes goes to the next generation, the three Palliser children: Silverbridge (Anthony Andrews), Gerald (Michael Cochrane), and Mary (Kate Nicholls). Silverbridge fails at Oxford, but excels at cricket, and falls in with Frank Tregear (Jeremy Irons) who convinces him that Conservatism is really the party for him. Behind his father’s back, Silverbridge runs as a Tory in the family constituency, and wins, but then gains his father’s semi-approval for his decency and gradually realises that Liberalism is really the better politics. Later, Tregear and Mary fall for each other, but in an echo of the doomed romance of Mary’s mother before she bowed to duty and eventually found a loyal love with Planty, Planty forbids Mary’s betrothal with Tregear.

All in all, I ended up greatly enjoying the series. It is of its time, but then at that time the BBC were making brilliant costume dramas unafraid, really, of making some political hay from the day.

I must confess that the pairing of Andrews as an aristocrat with Irons as his chum found at Oxford University but who ends up influencing Andrews’ character led immediately to a strong desire to re-watch the 1981 Granada TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited. I am a fan of the TV series, and I have read the novel on which it is based. I’ve not seen the more recent film version, and so I won’t judge it. One of the appeals of the Granada series is its languid, luxurious, and dreamy meander through the various events of Charles Ryder’s life where it intersects with country pile Brideshead and the Marchmain family.

My re-watch did not disappoint – aside from the extraordinarily dated and annoying anti-IP theft ads on each DVD. I was blown away by how good a pair of actors Irons and Andrews are. Both play remarkably similar (on paper) characters in the Pallisers and Brideshead, but both bring so much difference and nuance to each.

Watching both back-to-back, with the politics of decaying privilege against the backdrop of current world politics has provoked thoughts about all that. More for another time, though.