I took a bit of a hiatus from reviewing after the end of Peaky Blinders, but I couldn’t resist starting the year afresh on that front with the start of season 2 of Broadchurch. So, once more, my reviews will be appearing on The Digital Fix. In short, I really enjoyed the first episode, and I’m looking forward to where writer Chris Chibnall takes us next.
Until I got three-quarters of the way through Paul Cornell’s London Falling, this review was going to have quite a different bent. What I was expecting was an urban fantasy like Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, Butcher’s Storm Front or, especially, Carey’s The Devil You Know. These stories, rooted as they are in mystery stories, albeit modern, urban, supernatural ones, launch rapidly into the action, eager to lay their world before the readers’ eyes.
London Falling though started slowly, and started straight away as a police procedural or crime drama, barring perhaps the slightest hints of the supernatural for the astute reader. While revelations did come, I found the pace ponderous, sluggish.
This changed three-quarters of the way through, when a deftly foreshadowed revelation is made. It was at that point that I realised I was reading the book wrong. I was expecting it to be a pulpish, fast-paced, supernatural mystery. What I was actually holding in my hands was a horror story, seen through the prism of the police procedural and buried in the guts of London. My perspective shifted, I began to see how well the book had been assembled, how cleverly its moments of psychological horror had been built.
By the end, I was keen to see what case would follow next, how the personalities and perspectives of the protagonists would develop and how London would change. While I started skeptical about London Falling, I’m now looking forward to its follow-up, The Severed Streets, out in December in the UK.
I’ve always loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, since having read and re-read all them as a child. Even stories written by other authors fascinated me, I loved their new applications of the Holmesian archetype to new, or adapted, stories. One of the best of that category is Neil Gaiman’s Study in Emerald, a clever and imaginative cross-over with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe.
In recent years there have been successful adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, reframing the character for the modern day. The first of those re-imagined the character as a medical consulting detective. But instead of Holmes, he was named House. It was a clever show and, for the first season at least, was true to its origins, even bearing in mind the marginal genre shift. A more literal modernisation was Moffat’s Sherlock for the BBC. While the episodes were inconsistent, the entire two seasons, a mere six episodes, could easily rest on the laurels of the first one. A Study in Pink, penned by Moffat himself, was a brilliantly crafted Holmesian story, modernising the character and setting. One of my favourite aspects of the episode was the fact that it elevated Watson from comedy sidekick and buffoon to worthy companion, with backbone and spirit.
Which brings me to Elementary. CBS clearly saw the demand for a re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes and commissioned a direct re-telling. Johnny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes, an Englishman in New York, while Lucy Liu plays his assistant, Dr Joan Watson. For this project they turned to Robert Doherty, a man primarily known for having written episodes of Medium, Star Trek Voyager and Tru Calling. Shows that were, for the most part, inexplicably popular yet hardly lauded. Doherty, as series creator, wrote the first two episodes which, if it wasn’t for my love of the character and crime procedurals, would have had me walking away from Elementary forever.
Holmes as an archetype is the tortured genius, the bored, drug-ravaged sociopath, sometimes more child than man; I’m just not sure they’ve got the balance right in Elementary. Lucy Liu really can’t act and she’s been set in the role almost of his therapist. The crimes themselves were almost CSI level simplistic; forgivable in a procedural, but another nail in the coffin. It was only with episode 3 that I really grew to like the series. This time the writer was Peter Blake. His writing heritage? He wrote episodes of House; in fact he was the producer to some extent for almost every single episode. His single episode of Elementary easily redeemed the series, re-balancing the characters and getting the tone so much closer to the bone.
Episode four, which is as far as I’ve watched so far? It’s written by Craig Sweeny, who has also written for Medium. His episode of Elementary is a clumsy by-the-numbers affair that doesn’t do justice to the potential of the series.
I’m going to keep watching Elementary for now, hoping for more gems hiding amidst the detritus.
I’ve always been a fan of the Urban Fantasy sub-genre, that intersection between fantasy, horror and the modern-day. The best known example is Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden franchise, though personally I prefer Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels. True Blood has been the best example on TV. In comics, the most successful example has been Fables, which places fairy tale characters in modern-day New York.
Which brings me to the two contenders currently bringing the Fables-style Urban Fantasy to our TV screens. Once Upon a Time‘s protagonist enters a community, ruled with an iron fist by an evil stepmother of a boy who believes that they are all amnesiac fairy tale exiles. The narrative of each episode is spliced with a parallel tale from the land of fairy tales yet cleverly leaves the ‘real world’ narrative ambiguous, leaving doubt as to whether the boy is externalising his delusions or whether the fairy tales are true histories.
Grimm on the other hand follows the story of a cop from Portland, Oregon who learns he is the last of the Grimms, the literal descendant of the eponymous writers. Writers and warriors against the unnatural creatures who prey on humanity. Each episode is part police procedural and part individual fairy tale retelling, whether it’s Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
While the scriptwriting in Once Upon a Time is tight, imaginative and clever, Grimm’s is obvious and clichéd. If you think you know where the story is going to turn in Grimm, chances are you’ll be right. It’s lazy, common denominator stuff. Audiences seem to agree; although Grimm has already been green-lit for a second season, Once Upon a Time has managed to draw twice the audience with every episode so far.
Adam Christopher’s Empire State is a pulp science-fiction super hero parallel worlds story that is certainly rich in concept. In his own words, it’s “kinda Raymond Chandler meets The Rocketeer in Gotham City – robots, superheroes, airships, Prohibition, a lot of rain, and a lot of shady characters, and more than a few double-crossings”.
To me, in many ways the story lines reminded me of Fringe and Dark City, both of which I have a lot of affection for. However, when I asked Adam on Twitter about his influences, he assured me he had yet to see yet to see Dark City. Furthermore, while he thought that the Fringe Episode ‘Brown Betty’ fitted the aesthetic of Empire State very well, he had not seen any of the series until after finishing the book.
There are so many twists, double-crossings and surprises throughout the book, so it’s hard to go into details of the story, but it was a gripping story, keeping me engaged. The characterisation is good, doubly so. And the aesthetic worked for me; Chandler-esque pulp noir with super heroes and robots? What’s not to like?