All in Good Fun

Murdoch-8-Full-CastMURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 9, Episodes 12 & 13 (A Case of the Yips)(Unlucky in Love)

 

9-12In keeping with the theme of introducing obscure – but real – historical persons as characters in the weekly murders, A Case of the Yips involves a wealthy man killed at an exclusive golf club. One of the suspects is George Lyon, an avid golfer who has one many championships. He later would go on to represent Canada at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis, as he alludes to doing in the near future in this episode. Like Captain Bernier in last week’s episode, George Lyon fits well into the story and it is really only his throwaway line about the Olympics that clues in the viewers that he may actually be real.

The one problem that I had with this episode was that there seemed to be much more emphasis on golf than homicide investigation. While I admit that I am not a fan of golf (perhaps because I haven’t fallen under its curse, as Brackenreid insists happens to anyone who tries it out), the episode felt too lighthearted for the subject matter at hand. Murdoch becomes temporarily obsessed with the game – mostly viewing it as a scientific problem as well as a chance to spend away from his newfound paternal responsibilities while ostensibly still investigating the case – and it appears that this might cause a rift between him and Dr. Ogden. Of course, by the end of the episode, Murdoch is back to his old self. Really, his enthusiasm for golf was nothing more than the enthusiasm for something new and interesting. The rest of the episode consisted of way too many golf-related jokes and puns for my taste. Furthermore, Constable Crabtree had to put aside his rivalry with an arrogant toff (and prime suspect) and while this plot was also funny, it detracted from the main storyline even further. Nonetheless, the episode was amusing in farcical way. It made for some great comedy!

 

9-13In contrast to the past two weeks of having real characters sneak into the episodes and interact with the main characters, in Unlucky in Love, Lucy Maud Montgomery made a much-advertised appearance. She is much more famous now than she was in 1903, when she was just brainstorming her Anne of Green Gables stories.

Rather, in this episode, she is just a B-plot character who takes a writing class offered by Constable Crabtree. Being both writers, Crabtree and Montgomery hit it off as friends, critics, and potential love interests. Of course, complete with disclaimer that Crabtree is entirely fictional, the romance did not last. However, it was a nice flight of fancy for an episode! They also raised the issue of gender in storytelling that unfortunately has not been yet remedied, although it has been greatly improved over the past century: that male heroes are considered more interesting than females, and that men have “real” adventures. Even in 2016, women are still often seen as accessories in men’s stories. (What has changed is that the reverse is now also true.) Crabtree is convinced that the character of Anne should be a boy instead. Thankfully, he was indeed a fictional character and thus Montgomery never followed his advice! Anne as a boy would have been entirely boring and forgettable. It was her femininity that made her an immortal character.

Once again, the murder of the week had a dark comedic ring to it as the victim turned out to be the latest in a long line of husbands who had died in suspicious circumstances. Either the bride was a serial killer out for money or the one of the most unlucky women in Toronto. It was refreshing that it turned out that the murderer was not a smug gold-digger bride who had five brilliantly-executed murders under her belt, but something much more sinister and tragic. Overall, tragedy was the theme of this episode. It was funny, but much of the story left the audience slightly ill-at-ease. At the end of it, the victim was still dead, his widow still a widow for the fifth time (beyond childbearing years now and likely steadily seen as poison), and Constable Crabtree was left heartbroken.

Thank goodness for little Roland! He remains adorable and a source of joy for Murdoch and Ogden. Even as they are starting to realise that they have no clue about raising him, they are still blissfully happy with him. Murdoch is starting to wonder if Roland should be walking and then wonders if perhaps his son will not be intelligent or inquisitive like he is. It is a legitimate concern, particularly in an era where eugenics was common belief. Even biological children do not necessarily match the intelligence of their parents! Little Roland will indeed have to contend with his adoptive father’s stellar reputation as he grows up.

Hopefully he keeps his cuteness!

BabyRoland

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In Which Katy’s Ideas Come to Fruition

Murdoch-8-Full-CastMURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 9, Episodes 10 & 11 (Raised On Robbery)(The Big Chill)

So now we know who the mysterious little boy is in the flash-forwards in earlier seasons…

In a surprising twist, Raised On Robbery departs from the usual murder case to offer a bank heist as the case of the week instead. Detective Murdoch is on the case primarily because he was at the bank at the time of the robbery – as a private citizen looking to obtain a loan to build a house. He is thus immediately on hand to offer his expertise on the investigation. The bank in question is a high-profile institution with a state-of-the-art security system, and yet it was foiled by a complex and rather ingenious plot. There were more twists and turns in this case than in the usual murders! It was a rather lighthearted episode, since compared to a homicide, bank robbery is comparatively less grave. The B-plot was also suitably fun: namely British ex-patriate soccer fans, including Inspector Brackenreid, getting together to listen to a championship game over the wireless.

Was the plot believable? Actually, yes – successful (or nearly successful, in this case) bank robberies are generally complex. It was strange, though – I kept waiting for a dead body to show up!

9-10At the beginning of the series, Detective Murdoch very much wanted to have a family. In the third season, Dr. Ogden admitted that she was unable to have children after a botched abortion in her late teens. After some soul-searching, Murdoch admitted that he was willing to forgo biological children to be with her – they could always adopt. Unfortunately, Dr. Ogden had moved on – more because she really didn’t believe that Murdoch would be happy with her. The whole impediment to their relationship hinged on this. Only in the last couple of seasons did they overcome the fact that they would not be able to have children together.

Which is why now is indeed a perfect time to bring back the idea of adoption. Now it is Dr. Ogden who falls in love with the unfortunate orphaned baby Roland, while Murdoch is sceptical and unsure about taking on such a responsibility. The fact that their characters have undergone this shift makes their adopting Roland seem all the more organic.

During the break over Christmas, I mused that they would introduce a baby only if it were an orphan from a case or from a relative. The writers seemed to understand that they could not simply magically cure Dr. Ogden and introduce a biological child. It would not fit with the series at all. I was pleasantly surprised that they did this in the very next episode!

9-11b

Bringing us to The Big Chill, wherein little Roland has been embraced by his new parents and is making their ability to solve cases more difficult. Murdoch and Ogden are atypical parents, particularly for the early 1900s, and they bring their son to work and on outings to the museum. Whatever their colleagues think, they are letting it slide for now because cases are getting solved, Murdoch and Ogden are just getting used to parenthood (rather suddenly, I might add), and because the baby is just so darned cute! The casting directors found a set of babies who are absolutely adorable and delightful. They are natural performers and interact well with the actors. Watching Murdoch, Ogden, Miss James, and even Brackenreid interact with baby Roland is simply delightful.

That said, we still see how hard it is to get used to a baby, particularly a nine-month-old. It is clear that Murdoch and Ogden did not have much interaction with children, and they missed the early months wherein new parents get used to having a baby in their lives (rather than suddenly having to fit him into their lives) and build a unique communication strategy with said baby. Roland was already used to his first parents, or at least his mother, and he needs to build a relationship with his new ones. That is likely another reason why they take him everywhere – they do not want him to think he is going to be abandoned again. It is refreshing to hear him be called “young Master Murdoch” – in everyone’s eyes, he is Murdoch and Ogden’s son, or is supposed to be.

9-11aOn a different note, the actual murder of the week in this episode involves a murder on an Arctic expedition. They also introduce us to Captain Joseph-Elzear Bernier, who is in Toronto showing off specimens from his last expedition and looking to secure funding to return to claim the North Pole for Canada and the Empire. One could be forgiven for thinking that he is a quirky character dreamed up by the writers, except that he was indeed a real captain who did explore the Arctic extensively and paved the way for British/Canadian claim to the Arctic islands. That is one the ingenious elements of Murdoch Mysteries in general – that it can introduce us to real historical persons while still keeping them intrinsic and organic to the storyline. In this case, Bernier was so well integrated that I initially failed to recognize him as a real person. He was as much a character in the story as Murdoch.

The actual murder was a bit of a gamble on the killer’s part: it relied on the corpse being found away from the ship and returned, then preserved and brought back home, and then being used to ruin Captain Bernier’s reputation. Of course, Arctic exploration was a serious international business and lots of governments were trying to get their hands on it, just as it is today. It was not surprising that the murderer was a spy in the employment of a rival country. However, I do think it is silly that they intend to charge him with treason. I was under the impression that the spy was not actually a British subject – but perhaps that was just Brackenreid blustering, being the patriotic fellow that he is.

This episode once again turned to science and served to remind the audience what the scientific and political climate were like in 1903. It also piqued Murdoch’s curiosity and he was most keen to talk with Captain Bernier about his findings and read the victim’s journals. Even with a new baby, Murdoch and Ogden are scientists first. In the case of Arctic exploration, even Brackenreid and Crabtree are fascinated. But the science is countered by the conspiracy and the race to claim the region for the Empire. Ten years before the outbreak of the First World War, the European powers are already getting their chess pieces lined up. Luckily, baby Roland will still be too young to fight!

It also made anxious reference to today’s Arctic sovereignty issues. Canada may have claimed various islands and waterways, but we lack the ships to defend them. It remains to be seen what happens as further ice melts.

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Heroes Reborn (2015-16) – Great Ideas Poorly Executed in a Rush

Heros-RebornHeroes Reborn had lots of good ideas and interesting storylines, but it was so rushed and convoluted that it felt like a bloody mess to the viewers.

Small wonder that it remained a miniseries only!

There is a fundamental problem inherent in rebooting existing stories, be it in film, television, or books – namely that audiences who enjoyed the previous stories are already attached to existing characters and worlds. Heroes Reborn was a further edition of Heroes (2006-2010), but it introduced a new cast of characters and a new storyline. Unfortunately, this same new cast was not given a chance to shine, because there were so many new characters as well as characters from the first series crowding the screen. For a fan of the old series, Reborn felt like an unnecessary rip-off. For new audiences, such as myself (having only seen a couple episodes of Heroes quite awhile ago), the new characters were fine but there were too many. Basically, existing fans were angry and new audiences grew increasingly bored or confused. Halfway through, I only watched so that I could find out what happened – I simply wanted to see the story to its natural conclusion. Unlike a book, I couldn’t skip to the end.

The writers of this series are primarily concerned with plots rather than characters. With so many new characters with their own plotlines, audiences did not have enough time to get invested in anyone. We did not connect with the characters enough to care about them. As someone who prefers to get to know characters, it was especially frustrating to watch these choppy storylines. Reel me in with main characters. Let me get inside the head of the protagonist and/or the antagonist. Show me funny character-building scenes. Do this frequently in the first few episodes so that I actually care about what happens to the main characters later on!

Also, mysterious connections between characters? Characters scattered about hither and yon who don’t seem to have any connections whatsoever? The writers made the classic mistake of equating mystery with intrigue. No, audiences will not be interested in watching just because you introduce something or someone that does not make sense! If answers are not provided – or even hinted at – relatively soon, the audience will lose interest. If we wanted to watch a mystery, there are plenty of those elsewhere. Also, revealing clues or part of an answer to the audience does not mean the characters still cannot be in the dark. If we are properly invested in the characters and care about them, we will watch them figure out the connections between themselves. Basically, there was too much ambiguity and confusion that went on for too long.

Nonetheless, the show was fun. I think this will be better to binge-watch several episodes at once, as this show reads more like a novel. With a week or more between episodes, it was hard to follow. It might be easier to watch over a weekend. Likewise, as a miniseries, it had a concrete plot that simply became too convoluted for the short running time. The writers tried to cram 22 hours-worth of story into 13 hours, rather than taking thirteen hours and running with it. The basic plot works beautifully: a natural cataclysm is approaching that can only be stopped by a certain pair of supernatural teenagers, aided by many more superhumans and regular humans, while facing down human antagonists as well.

The first half of the series unfortunately does not really focus on this plot, so much as it centres on a terrorist attack and mysteries surrounding it. Humans with supernatural powers, called “evos”, are persecuted due to being blamed for the attack and feared in general. The series makes many allusions to terrorism and how certain ethnic and religious groups have been profiled and persecuted as a result. In fact, had the writers continued to pursue this angle, the series might have been more exciting. Instead, the first half of the series is a confusing mess of interesting individual storylines, mysterious origins, and characters facing persecution. Only at the mid-way point do we even learn about the world-ending cataclysm!

The second half of the series focuses on saving the world, taking down the antagonists, and wrapping up storylines that really were unnecessary, given the limited run of the miniseries. There was little unity to the two halves, except for the characters themselves.

In hindsight, there were lots of things that Heroes Reborn could have done to be better received. However, it served its purpose and was a fun show to watch for entertainment, provided one could keep track of the characters and storylines. Early episodes are especially good for making one think about how innocent people get caught up in disastrous events and how the fallout can have deadly consequences. We are shown how far people will go for safety and security. We see how people will justify killing innocent people because something about them that they cannot control (power, in this case, rather than ethnicity, gender, or genetics) causes them to be considered no longer innocent. Taken to the logical conclusion, the show warns us that our prejudices and our paranoia could bring about our destruction because we prevent ordinary people from doing their part for society.

Overall, this series had lots of potential, but it fell short in its execution. It was enjoyable and entertaining, but not as much as it could have been. It certainly did not resonate with audiences well. It did not live up to expectations, but few sequels can, so that was not surprising. We were not able to connect with the characters despite excellent performances by the actors, and even if we were, we did not get enough time with them to build a lasting investment in their well-being. By the time we did, if we did at all, it was almost time for the story to end, anyway.

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The Hunger Games Trilogy – Reflections on the Film Series

The Hunger Games (2012)After the end of the Harry Potter films (not to mention the books), I had several recommendations to read The Hunger Games trilogy. While it certainly seemed more interesting and fulfilling than the Twilight series, I did not get around to reading it until I started to see the promotional material in a bookstore for the first Hunger Games film. These tie-in books with glossy colour pages of photos, charts, simplified character lists, etc. immediately drew me into the world of Panem and the horrifying gladiatorial combat that was the Hunger Games.

Even more horrifying was reading the trilogy (over the course of three days) to discover startling similarities between the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts and the wealthier countries of our world as compared to those whose populations are almost permanently sick and starving. The Katniss Everdeen of the early chapters of the first book is eerily familiar and could believably be alive today in many countries. More chillingly, the Hunger Games seem to me to be entirely plausible. Yes, we might be horrified at the actual killing of children, but we are perfectly all right with the concept. All producers would have to do would be to reassure us that no children were actually harmed – and make sure that said children had no one to miss them. There are lots of street children throughout the world, after all. In a world where food shortages are a growing problem, the Games seem all the more familiar. What frightens me the most is that it would not take a dictatorship to create such horrors.

Having devoured the books, I was thrilled with the first film. It remains one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel to screen that I have seen. So faithful, in fact, that the audience members who had read the book knew exactly when to go to the bathroom before the action became too intense to miss! Some of the details of the book were altered or compressed to better represent the story in film, but these were few. Chiefly, the first-person narration and perspective was dropped in favour of expanding our understanding of Panem, its citizens, and President Snow. Yet this was done without taking the spotlight off of Katniss. She remains the story’s anchor throughout all of the films, even if we are no longer privy to her inner thoughts.

The Hunger Games is above all a survival story. The romance feels unnatural – because it is, not being really being there initially. Katniss and Peeta barely know each other. They have a history mostly consisting of a childhood crush (on Peeta’s part) and being grateful at having been given a loaf of bread in a time of need (on Katniss’s part). As for Gale, while he had romantic feelings for Katniss, it seems clear throughout the book that these were not reciprocated. The film unfortunately leaves Katniss’s feelings ambiguous because we lose her inner monologue. Jennifer Lawrence does a brilliant job at conveying the character and I never get the feeling that she is attracted to Gale except as a friend/big brother-substitute – but I had read the book. What is clear in the books (and not made quite as obvious in the film) is that Katniss is much too concerned with survival to focus on romance. She has to be coached in her role for the Games. It is a refreshing change to have the heroine of a story aimed at young adults who is not obsessed with romance and sex, but who is fully committed to her family and her own future. Katniss is portrayed as a character for young girls to look up to, and I most definitely agree.

The Hunger Games Catching Fire (2013)The Hunger Games: Catching Fire also stayed fairly true to the book. We were treated to the aftermath of Katniss and Peeta winning the previous Games and witness how their actions have permanently affected the stability of Panem. More importantly, we get to see how they are coping psychologically with the trauma that they have witnessed (and participated in) and with being puppets for the state, rather than being allowed to relax and return home to their old lives. We are also introduced to many new characters as Katniss’s hitherto cozy and self-contained world expanded. This film is a transition from the morbid adventure romp of the first film and the outright war stories that are the Mockingjay films. While it is clear that Panem is on the brink of war and smaller rebellions have already broken out, we are soon lured back into the familiar world of the Games. Similar scenes to the first film are echoed with foreboding. We were casual and intrigued spectators last time. In this second film, we became disgusted at the spectacle.

Catching Fire is a child’s game grown up. The contestants are all adults, many of them with varying degrees of madness. Scratch that – all of them with varying degrees of madness. Instead of wide-eyed children, the former Victors know all of the drills. The inner workings of the Games become more visible. Various contestants ally together and attempt to take on the Gamemakers and even the government itself. We really do not want to be watching the Games anymore, but we want to see the rebellion succeed.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay 1 (2014)Succeed they do, leaving us with the set-up to Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2. Now the Games are gone. It is a real war now. The adults have taken over and Katniss finds herself defining her own role in the fight. She was still a scared teenager before. Now she is a woman who insists on having her own terms met, even at the expense of the rebellion. She is relatively broken, but she does her best to build herself up again. This story is a wonderful illustration of young adulthood, albeit in extreme circumstances. In the first book, Katniss is considered a child – an innocent victim. She is considered a fairy-tale princess in the second book, growing up immediately but also coddled and protected. Between the middle of Catching Fire and the middle of Mockingjay, Katniss sheds her innocence and rebels against the image that has been created for her. This is why she is increasingly seen as dangerous. President Snow and the designer Cinna are shown to have realised this early on, even as she was still seen as the innocent girl. It takes Katniss a long time to realise this about herself. She just wanted to save her sister, and then save Peeta. She never really wanted to defeat President Snow until he orders the destruction of District 12, leaving her little choice but to work to get her home back.

Funnily enough, it is in these last films that the love triangle really takes off. I still do not buy it. Katniss shows little interest in Gale except as a friend. It is with Peeta whom she feels the most connected. Getting him to safety is her main priority throughout the films. Gale cannot understand her, nor her motivations. He lost her the moment that she volunteered in the first film. Barring Peeta, Katniss is devoted to her sister (and her mother, to a lesser extent) and shows more romantic attraction to Finnick Odair* than Gale. Had she never volunteered for the Games, she and Gale might have developed a romantic relationship later. Had Gale not implicated himself in the plot that resulted in Prim’s death, and had Peeta not survived, he and Katniss might have had a lustful fling, but neither would have had a deeper connection than simple biology. Katniss Everdeen started off having to define her role as a lovesick sweetheart, but that was not at all who she was. That was a fake teenage girl role. By the end of the story, Katniss is her own person, and who she ultimately ends up with is incidental to her role, albeit very important to her, of course.

The books and the films both developed fanbases who were eager to see Katniss end up with either Peeta or Gale, much like the Team Edward and Team Jacob cults around Twilight, but neither the books nor the films had much of a triangle to begin with. The films pretty much had to manufacture some romantic tension using creative editing of trailers and some longing looks. It was obvious that Gale was long out of the picture – he harboured romantic interest for Katniss, but she did not do so for him. After their experience in the Games, Katniss and Peeta had an understanding of each other that no one else could have stepped into. I found that the promotional aspects of the films – as well as lots of fans and critics who had never read the books – tried too hard to focus on the so-called love triangle. There really was none, except in Gale’s head, and perhaps at some point, Peeta’s. Seeing the two men discuss Katniss in the final film was sentimentally sweet but also laughable. Did either of them think that Katniss would not make up her own mind? Or that she might decide instead to forgo romance altogether?

As for the war plot in Mockingjay itself, I thought it was well-executed and the story suitably dark for a series that started off with the killing of children. It rarely veered into campiness, and when it did, it only magnified the horror. While many elements of the war were fantastical and futuristic, it maintained its realism in how it played out and in its aftermath. Just because the war ends does not mean that the world will get better immediately.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay 2 (2015)Just as Katniss matures over the series, this is one of the first young adult series that young people may read that shows realistically how governments change. Nothing is done overnight, and old habits die hard. Leaders use many ends to justify the means by which they achieve them. The media is used as a manipulation tool by all sides. Replacing one regime with another will not necessarily make the world better. Finally, it is essential to learn that one may earn one’s happy ending, but that does not mean that one will get it. Katniss is still broken after many years. She may have survived, but she is traumatized.** This is more obvious in the book that in the film, but Jennifer Lawrence manages to convey her character’s trauma as well as she can. Besides, younger audience members still have to learn for themselves through experience that happy endings do not happen immediately.

In conclusion, I truly enjoyed The Hunger Games and am glad that the films remained so faithful to the original books. It is certainly not whimsical and is somewhat too realistic sometimes, but that is what it is meant to do. The film series also proved that they could successfully market an action-adventure story with a female lead. While Katniss had lots of supporting men, she was the star. She also had a lot of female company, and most of her motivation was for her family and later her country, not for romance. At the same time, it is not a film with an agenda to promote women’s rights. The story is very organically told. It is beautiful and yet awful, entertaining and yet horrifying. It is a perfect transition story from adolescence to adulthood. As an adult, I watch and thank God that my fight has not been so literal or traumatizing.

I do wish I could have been better at archery though.

Finnick-Annie-Wedding-Gif-finnick-and-annie-38547827-689-459*Incidentally, I thought the character of Finnick was portrayed perfectly. No, he did not get enough screentime for my liking, but he was in the story exactly when needed. He also got his Poseidon-inspired heroic death, much to my relief. Finnick was broken like Peeta and Katniss, but being older, he had figured out how to use his brokenness to his advantage and how to cope with his trauma. He was more militaristic, even moreso than Gale, but he was also devoted to his family – in this case Annie, who was all he had left. He was also more friendly, like Peeta. Before his demise, he had moved into a big brother role to Peeta and Katniss, and likely would have continued to do so. Ultimately, he is more the hero than Gale, so he rightly should have been the third face of the trio. Likewise, Annie is an intriguing character who does not get enough attention – though that is primarily because Katniss was not concerned with her. If Suzanne Collins ever wants to write another book in the series, a book starring Finnick and Annie would be most welcome!

katniss&rue**Katniss sings the same lullaby that she sang to Rue twenty years later to her own child. It was chilling – every time she watches her baby drift off to sleep, is she haunted by the image of Rue?

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Katy’s Pros and Cons of Historical Epics

51Akck-6SSL._SL500_AA300_Historical fiction epics come in many varieties – the term has been applied to sweeping sagas spanning multiple volumes and it has also applied to self-contained works that tell a story of several generations. Some epics tell a story lasting centuries (Edward Rutherfurd and John Jakes books come to mind) while others last the lifetime of the central protagonist, or even only a few decades of said protagonist’s life – albeit usually very exciting decades.

1999-novel-celtictiger-search-for-peace-morgan-llywelyn-book-cover-artThe appeal of the historical fiction epic – which I loosely define as “a work of historical fiction wherein the story takes place over at least one generation (roughly 20-25 years)” – is obvious. Like its counterparts in science fiction and fantasy, the historical epic offers adventure, character arcs, opportunities for quests, drama, foreign worlds, lost civilizations, and more. Historical fiction has the added advantage in that its setting and events are ostensibly true. Why slog through Middle Earth or a galaxy far away when you can slog through medieval Europe, the high seas, North America before it was fully conquered by Europeans, and more?

Obviously, the first obstacle is that the latter requires a lot more research and restricts the author significantly. Given the choice, most storytellers would prefer to create their own worlds and have more freedom in their storytelling. For true historical fiction, you have to respect our real timeline. Things have to happen closely to how they did in reality. The ship has to sink, the battle has to happen, slavery has to be real, and certain individuals have to do what they really did. Anything else would be alternate history, which is really just another branch of science fiction or fantasy.

Les Miserables 2012While different types of stories appeal to different people, overall, the historical epic has a disadvantage in that it takes place over a long period of time. This makes it difficult to portray sympathetic and relatable characters. This is particularly the case for long stories taking place over multiple generations and centuries. Characters in these stories tend not to be well-developed and even if they do, they by necessity do not stick around long, the human lifespan being what it is. Even a strong protagonist tends to have a lot of supporting characters fade in and out of their life. Authors tend to introduce many characters and then dispose of them rather quickly, or simply have them fade to memory and never resolve their story arcs. Much like real life, we never find out what happened to the hero’s old colleague, lost love interest, or childhood playmate. For some of us, that is highly frustrating.

While historical epics are not a genre unto themselves, they do have some positive and negative traits in common. I admit these are subjective – one person’s “too many characters” is another person’s “lots of unique and quirky characters”.

Positive aspects of the historical fiction epic:

  1. Explore an era of history, or explore the history of a place, culture, society, or nation, with fictional characters to make history more fun and relatable – the reason why anyone writes historical fiction of any kind! A historical epic makes the place or society itself into a character, with the other characters reflecting the changes. This is dramatized non-fiction, only with fictional characters added alongside the historical ones and with actual events being more loosely adapted. A well-researched story can be a good teaching tool that is a lot more memorable than a simple historical narrative.
  2. Follow a character from early life to death (or at least elderhood) and see how their world changed. Sixty to eighty years is a long time, especially in more recent history.
  3. Lots of opportunity for adventures, quests, and romance, as well as warfare, crime, and tragic consequences. These can be divided up between characters too, sometimes leading to almost completely different stories.
  4. Introducing lots of characters can make for more stories in the future. This is especially good for potential franchises and sequels.
  5. Following, for example, the same family line through generations can show how real people were affected by history – how civil wars split up families, how one family came to be servants to another, how cultures were destroyed and rebuilt, and how humans migrated throughout the world. This is often much easier to relate to in a fictional story than simply being told that “we are all related somehow” or “brother fought against brother”.

Negative aspects of the historical fiction epic:

  1. Places and societies can make for interesting characters, but not usually very good leading protagonists. A city cannot be a hero. Too much emphasis on the history lesson can detract from the story and the characters. Research is important, but too much focus on the research and historical facts and not enough on the fiction can make for a dull story, be it a book, play, or film. This is a drawback of all historical fiction, epic or not. It is still fiction, after all.
  2. Following a lead protagonist naturally results in some characters dropping off and never being seen again, as mentioned above. A lot of interesting things happen offscreen or off-page, since they do not necessarily happen to our hero directly. Since the hero cannot die, he or she ends up surviving and their sidekicks or love interests die instead. The audience gets to spend an entire lifetime with the hero and does not necessarily get a chance to really connect with them. Plus, a lead character who is basically just someone for “history to happen to” can make for a boring hero.
  3. Too many plots, too many characters, too much bouncing back and forth. Having plots that are virtually completely different stories, only connected by their shared location or shared family history, can be distracting and confusing. Following two leads while one is off at war and another is back home? Excellent! Following five different leads off at war and three more in various hometowns? Getting messy.
  4. Start with one story, then worry about sequels. Audiences tend to want more of their favourite characters, not lots of new ones. However, as above with too many plotlines, telling multiple stories in separate volumes can work out well. Instead of a 1000-page doorstopper, how about three 400-page novels that are separate but interconnected?
  5. Showing two branches of the same family fighting on opposite sides in a war, for example, has a greater impact if we have a strong connection to the characters in question. If these are siblings or first cousins fighting each other, and we watched their parents fall in love and get married, we care a lot more than if we are merely told that these foes are third cousins who have never met previously but are related because the family tree says so.

MOBY-cover-final-US1-220x327The historical fiction epic is thus a contradiction, much like historical fiction in general. Research and accuracy are important, but so are the characters and their stories. One does not win points for portraying over 1000 years of history in one novel simply by stringing together some interesting anecdotes loosely held together with historical facts. Historical fiction needs to be fun in order to be useful. Otherwise, history itself is sufficient.

loyalist

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New Year’s Day

Heritageton

“What’s going on in here?” a voice bellowed through the haze wafting through the kitchen. “The smokehouse is out round the side!”

“I’m just cooking the bacon!” Daisy called back, fiddling with the knobs on the stove. “Everything’s fine!”

“Well, that’s good – sure smells wonderful!”

“Thanks, Dad. Mama’s run over to Miss Carnegie’s to get some more sugar for the pie tonight. I got my hands full with this so I haven’t been able to open the windows up yet.”

Jim finished taking off his coat and boots and wandered fully into the room.

“You all alone in here?”

“I’ve got the bacon under control and the cinnamon buns are almost done. Table’s set, orange juice is squeezed. Do you want to pour out six glasses? We can eat as soon as Mama gets back.”

Her father looked around to see that beyond the kitchen and the table lovingly set out with HAPPY NEW YEAR decorations, his younger children were relaxing in the family room near a roaring fireplace. Bridget, having turned five only weeks earlier, had her animals neatly arranged on the floor and was lost in her own little world. Jim chuckled – were they playing hockey again? Bridget insisted that wild animals in her special park played sports, performed plays, danced, and went to school, all in peace and harmony.

The eight-year-old twins were both reading – Keeley one of the new books that she had received for Christmas and Aidan the instructions for his new Lego monstrosity. It was a quirk of both father and son that they never built anything without planning it first – although Jim was firmly of the belief that Lego was too elaborately complicated. How could it be fun anymore? They had taken all of the imagination out of it. Fine, sure, it was teaching the children how to follow instructions, but what would drive them to design new models? Or improvise their way out of a mistake?

“Hey, Kirwan crew, what say you help your sister out and open some windows? It’s a nice warm morning – we can open the inside door to the deck for a little while. Clear the smoke out, eh? Brunch is almost ready!”

Six eyes turned to look at him, blinking as they registered that the room was filling with smoke and their father had come in from his workshop.

“Beg your pardon, Dad?” Keeley asked. “All I hear is sizzling.”

“Yay, brunch is almost ready!” Bridget jumped up and ran toward the table. Seemingly remembering something mid-stride, she whipped herself around and rushed over to open the nearest window.

“Jourdy won’t get out ‘cause Dad didn’t take the screens out!” she proclaimed. The elderly cat of that name raised his head out of his bed in the sunbeam.

“Jourdy won’t be going out anyway when there’s meat cooking,” Keeley muttered, shoving her bookmark in place and getting up to help her sister with the windows. “But just in case, we’d better make sure the screen door is locked.”

Jim turned his attention to his son.

“Aidan, can I help you build that spaceship later?”

“Sure!”

“Thanks – it looks interesting. But for now, can you go wash up? I see your mother coming up the back deck. That means time for brunch!”

“Yay! I’m hungry!” Aidan bolted for the sink.

“Me too. How are you doing there, Daisy?”

“Time for you to wash up too, Dad!” Daisy waved him away playfully, with the added effect of clearing out the remaining smoke.

By the time that Lena came inside with her sugar and removed her winter clothes, thirteen-year-old Daisy had the tray of cinnamon buns on the counter, the bacon on a plate in the middle of the table (with some tiny pieces having purposely fallen into Jourdy’s dish) and a tiny bowl of butter in the microwave to melt. The younger girls scurried off to wash up while Lena caught her breath, surveying her surroundings.

“My my, you fixing to get married already, Daisy? I couldn’t have done this better myself.”

“You’re a good teacher, Mama, and no – I want to be a lawyer, remember?”

“You can get married and be a lawyer, no?”

“I think I’ll keep using the microwave then.”

“Well, you run your house however you want – don’t let anyone ever tell you different. Except me – I’m your mother.”

They laughed together as Aidan passed back toward the table. Unnoticed, the little boy rolled his eyes at them as he sat down.

“You’ve finished everything off – now you get yourself cleaned up while I put the butter on. It’s my favourite part of making cinnamon buns!”

Daisy obediently removed her apron and washed her hands. Keeley and Bridget joined their brother at the table and stared at the plate of bacon and pitcher of freshly-squeezed orange juice eagerly.

“Mama, how many oranges go in the juice?” Bridget asked.

“Lots,” she replied, painting the butter across the buns and inhaling deeply. “More oranges than I’d ever dreamed off when I was little.”

“Forty-three,” Keeley answered matter-of-factly. “I counted how many were in the bag yesterday.”

“So you had to squeeze…eighty-six times?” Aidan asked.

“That sounds about right,” Lena replied. “So don’t you be drinking it too fast!”

The children looked shocked at the suggestion. It was a holiday tradition for the whole family to toast with their orange juice, and they were not about to start their drinks any earlier – even if the smoke had made their throats a bit dry.

Daisy and Jim sat down as Lena triumphantly brought the tray of cinnamon buns – oozing with butter, cinnamon, nuts, and raisins – to the table. She used the same body language that she did for carrying lit birthday cakes.

“God bless you and send you a happy new year…” she began to sing.

“And God send you a haaaa-ppy new year!” the rest of the family joined in.

Bridget led the applause as her mother set the tray down in front of Jim.

“Mm, these look and smell heavenly, my darling. The rest of you enjoy your bacon!”

“No!!!” Bridget cried out, before realising that her father was joking.

“All right, I’m sorry, sweetie. No more Dad goofing around!” Jim cleared his throat. “Let’s say Grace.”

***

“Well, Daisy has tucked herself in for the night with her mystery novel,” Lena reported as she joined her husband in the family room. “We are alone again.”

“I can’t believe how tired the young ones get considering they’re home from school and we don’t have hours of chores like they do on the farms.”

“Our children read a lot,” Lena reasoned. “They think. Thinking takes a lot of effort.”

“Well, we both agreed that was what we wanted.”

“Oh yes, I sure won’t complain. Nor will I complain that they are all in bed. My favourite part of the day is when I get to snuggle with you in front of the fireplace.”

“Just snuggle?”

“We built this lovely big room – there’s nowhere to hide if one of the children should come downstairs! We have a perfectly good bed in a room with a lock.”

“Ah, I know, I just like sitting here with you too.”

“Shall I get us some wine?”

“Wine, eh? What’s wrong with a good ale? Or a nip of whisky?”

“You’ve got plenty of that in the fridge in your shop. I’ll go get us some of that cherry wine we bought on our summer trip. It says it is perfect for cozying up by a winter fire. Says it right on the bottle!”

“Well, if it says so on the bottle! Then perhaps a wee nip?”

“How many New Year’s toasts do we need?”

“We have nowhere we need to go to tomorrow, do we? Keeley will get up and feed the pet cat.”

Lena reluctantly pulled herself up from the couch and went into the kitchen.

“Jameson’s, right? Can’t start the new year off with anything but!”

Jim mentally pictured his row of whisky bottles in the cabinet.

“Of course, my dear woman!”

Lena returned with a tray consisting of four filled glasses.

“My favourite part of being married for fifteen years now is that you know exactly how I like my food and drink!”

“And yet you still surprise me.”

“And you me.”

“My favourite part of being married for fifteen years is that you stay much the same!”

“Happy New Year, Mrs. Kirwan!”

“Happy New Year, Mr. Kirwan!”

“Another toast – to my beautiful wife, my other half, mother to our children – Helena!”

“To my handsome husband, my rock, our children’s father – James!”

“To our children – all four of them on Earth and two in Heaven.”

“Cheers!”

After some time of reflection, they started to get ready for bed. Jim put out the fire while Lena folded the blankets and took the tray into the kitchen.

“If nothing changes in our family now – except that we all grow older, of course – I will be perfectly happy. Do you agree?”

Lena nodded.

“Eh, Lena?”

“I do,” she spoke up. “Even if I get all broody whenever my brother comes to visit with his young wife and their wee ones.”

“Well, we aren’t too old yet and I can always make some bunkbeds.”

“Everything is a gift, that is what I have to keep thinking. We live in a good time.”

“The new year is all about ending and beginning. Seems it just reminds us to keep going.”

“That’s what we celebrate – that we keep going.”

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Happy Edwardian Christmas!

Murdoch-8-Full-CastMURDOCH MYSTERIES
Season 9, Episode 9 (A Merry Murdoch Christmas)

As far as Christmas specials go, this is one of the best that I have seen thus far. A Merry Murdoch Christmas took the classic Murdoch Mysteries episode and stretched it into a two-hour exhilarating adventure, culminating in a dark chase through the snow to catch the suspect. The suspense was counterbalanced with holiday sentimentality customary for Christmas specials.

9-9bIf that were all, it would have been pleasant enough. However, the story highlighted key themes surrounding the holiday season: namely, that it can be too easy to get so carried away with the family traditions that we neglect others who may be lonely or downhearted, and that people can use Christmas as a means to puff up their own generous image while neglecting those less fortunate than themselves for the rest of the year. It is stated more than once in the episode: “Christmas is a time for the godless to feel pious and for the greedy to feel generous.” This is still true, as anyone who works at the food bank can attest. We are inundated with pleas for donations from mid-October through mid-January, but for the other nine months of the year, it is easy to forget about charitable works and donations. Poverty is a problem all year. Making a big show of being generous at Christmastime – while appreciated – does little to alleviate the overall crisis.

Another element that the show touches on is the fact that crime does not take a Christmas break. The police have to work extra diligently during such a busy season. That, along with their somewhat cynical outlook on life, can make for tired and grumpy police officers. To alleviate their image, they participate in charity toy drives (or, as I saw in a recent news article, hand out stuffed animals to children), all the while still trying their best to do their jobs and solves crimes. In the days leading up to Christmas in A Merry Murdoch Christmas, a high-profile murder threatens to prevent the constables of Stationhouse 4 from celebrating the holiday with their families. Even as it seems all will be well, there are Inspector Brackenreid, Detective Murdoch, and Constable Crabtree (along with Dr. Ogden) running around after a murderer at midnight on Christmas Eve. For the police, along with firefighters, nurses, and other emergency personnel, Christmas is just another night – and a busy one, at that.

9-9Finally, the setting of the story proves interesting. Early twentieth-century Canada, especially Toronto, was a cultural melting pot. The Victorian-era traditions so often portrayed in Dickens-inspired stories were evolving to fit more in line with the modern Christmas traditions that we associate with the holiday in the present. In 1904, Christmas trees were gaining widespread acceptance, but were still looked upon by some as a silly German practice. Not everyone hung stockings (leading to an amusingly awkward scene between Murdoch, Ogden, and Crabtree). Not everyone wrapped gifts, although it was becoming more normalized with the advent of cheaply manufactured wrapping paper. Wrapping gifts was still seen as a bit ostentatious. Goose was still the normal bird for dinner, rather than turkey. Manufactured toys were becoming more and more affordable. In other words, the creators of the show succeeded in recreating a world that was no longer Dickens, but not quite Miracle on 34th Street yet. In that sense, A Merry Murdoch Christmas gives us a glimpse of a time not usually associated with Christmas and tells us a good story while they are at it.

9-9c

 

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