Featured

The Crumbs Are More Than The Cake

Also called Othoral and Hiadmath


There were once two people, by the names of Othoral and Hiadmath, who lived in a small house in the countryside. The house stood on a slight rise in the land, and was surrounded on all sides by field after field of tall crops grown by Othoral and Hiadmath.

Every day, Othoral made a cake for Hiadmath.

‘I am looking forward to this.’ Hiadmath would say as the cake was in the oven. ‘I do so like cake. I could happily eat the whole thing in one go.’

Once the cake had been baked, Othoral would take it out of the oven, and place it on the table. Once the cake had cooled, Othoral said to Hiadmath ‘Here, the cake is made. You may eat the whole thing.’

But despite his earlier eagerness for the cake, Hiadmath would say ‘I may have some of it later.’, for Hiadmath would be preoccupied by other things. Some days he would be sweeping the floor; some days he would be brushing soot out of the fireplace; some days he would be making a wooden chair. He complained about these tasks the entire time he was doing them, but he did them nevertheless.

Only after many hours would he sit at the table and have some of the cake, and when he did, he would only cut a thin slice for himself.

‘Why not have another slice?’ Othoral would say, once Hiadmath had eaten the first. ‘I know you will like it.’

But Hiadmath would say ‘No, I have had all I want.’ or ‘I may have some more later.’ (but even when he said this, he would always become preoccupied with other tasks again).

This happened every day. Othoral would make a cake, while Hiadmath talked of how much he was looking forward to eating the whole thing. But once the cake was made, Hiadmath would only have one thin slice.

After a while, Othoral was fed up with this, so one day, rather than just give Hiadmath the whole cake, Othoral took the cake, along with many plates, and walked around the fields and through the thickets near to their house. Every few paces, he placed one of the plates on the ground, and then broke a single crumb off the cake, and placed the crumb on the plate. Once he had placed every crumb of the cake, he returned to the house.

In the afternoon, Hiadmath, after many hours of working, said ‘I rather fancy a piece of cake.’

Othoral said ‘Look outside the front door.’

Hiadmath did so, and he saw a plate on the ground, on which was a single crumb of cake. He picked up the plate, and ate the single crumb of cake that was on it. ‘Mmm’, he said, ‘that was delicious, but I would rather like some more.’

Hiadmath then saw another plate on the ground, a few paces away. He walked over to it, and saw that it too had a crumb of cake on it. He picked up the plate and ate the crumb. ‘Mmm, that was also delicious, but still I would like some more.’

Hiadmath followed the trail of plates around the fields and through the thickets. He picked up each one, and ate the crumb of cake that was on it. By the time he got back to the house, he had eaten a whole cake.

‘All that cake was delicious!’ Hiadmath said to Othoral. ‘I could eat even more!’

Othoral had made another cake while Hiadmath had been wandering around outside, and he placed it on the table. ‘Here you go.’, Othoral said, ‘I have made another.’

Hiadmath immediately ate the whole second cake.

And this was how they continued. Every day Othoral baked a cake, and then walked around the fields, placing down plates, and placing a single crumb of the cake on each one. Every day Hiadmath walked around the fields, picking up the plates, eating the crumbs. And when Hiadmath returned to the house, he would eat a second whole cake.

Hiadmath ate far more cake than he had done before – before he had only eaten one thin slice of cake, but now he ate two whole cakes! He even ate more than he had at first wanted to – at first he had only wanted to eat one whole cake – for, as Othoral realised, the crumbs are more than the cake.


An original story by Benjamin T. Milnes

Copyright © Benjamin T. Milnes

Featured

The Emperor’s Pink Elephant

There was once a great empire.

This great empire was vast – reaching from the pine-covered mountains of Arennia in the west, to the golden beaches and azure reefs of Marcanne in the east, from the freshwater lakes of Belgamon in the north, to the apple orchards and apiaries of Arganza in the south. It was so vast that evening on one side of the empire was morning on the other. And at its centre stood its Capital – a limestone and marble metropolis that was the seat of power for a hemisphere.

This great empire was also extraordinarily wealthy. Though it had started as only a small city state, it had fought many wars over the years against the kingdoms and principalities along its borders, and it had won most of them. With each new territory it had conquered it had stolen all the riches it contained, fuelling yet further expansion of the empire. And with each monarchy that fell before it, ever more convinced did the subjects of the Emperor become that they were the only truly civilised people in the world, and that all those beyond the empire’s borders were barbarians.

But most of the people in the empire were not wealthy – they were impoverished – for most of the great wealth extracted from the lands they had taken was hoarded by the Emperor and his Barons. By the time of this story, they were far wealthier than they had ever been. The Grand Imperial Palace at the centre of the Capital was a small kingdom of ivory towers, marble colonnades, golden cupolas, glass-walled orangeries, wisteria-wrapped pergolas, and mosaic-covered terraces. The statues that stood atop the walls, the painted domed ceilings, and the stained glass windows all gleamed with a brilliance that was taken as proof of the empire’s immutable virtue.

The Emperor and his Barons spent their days strolling through the lush gardens and great halls of the imperial palace, but for most of the people of the empire, such a life was but a whisper of a whisper. In contrast to the luminance of the imperial palace, most of the great city that was the empire’s capital was in disrepair. Fires broke out every month; the sewers overflowed; the bridges collapsed. The houses were small, cramped, and expensive. Disease was often a death sentence.

Most of the people who lived in the city worked twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours of the day. A person had to be a master of two or three crafts in order to survive. Many were in debt. Food, at least, was cheap – not fine food, but food that would keep you alive, and well, for a time. In what little free time the people of the empire had, they had fun, and some were able to find a reluctant contentedness, but none were truly able to change the circumstances of their lives, and the risk of deprivation, despair, and death remained constant.

Many of the problems of the empire could have been resolved if some of the empire’s extraordinary wealth were put towards resolving them. The ordinary people of the empire knew this. And why should this not happen? After all, it had been these ordinary people who had fought the empire’s wars in the first place. They had obeyed the commands of their divine Emperor and taken land in the name of their exceptional civility, and then been left to suffer.

The People of the Capital thought that perhaps if they could speak to the Emperor, they could persuade him to implement policies that would solve the empire’s many problems. But getting to the Emperor was difficult – the Emperor, his Barons, and his Ministers were isolated within the Grand Imperial Palace. They never went beyond its tall walls.

So the People of the Capital gathered together, and resolved to send one of their group into the palace as a representative, to become one of the Emperor’s Ministers. (Unlike the Barons, who passed down their fortunes and titles to their sons, the Emperor’s Ministers were chosen from the greater populace.) They chose one man from their group who they believed would succeed – he was eloquent, rational, and honest, if somewhat brusque.

It was on a bright day, just before lunch, that this First Man strode up to the golden gates of the imperial palace, to be admitted as the Emperor’s newest Minister. The gates swung outward, and the First Man stepped forward into a world he could not have imagined.

The Grand Imperial Palace is filled with a great many wonders of the world: the Hydrargyrum Fountain, which will amalgamate any coin that is thrown into it, to become part of its quicksilver jets; the Lotus of Charan’girak – the flowers of which are fifteen feet tall and only bloom on the day after a blood moon; the Tree of Rhonyssia, each branch of which produces a different kind of fruit – cherries, pears, bergamots, dates, pineapples, blackberries – everything.

The flowerbeds, the shrubs, the walkways were all kept perfectly tidy by the imperial palace’s many hundreds of servants. Every leaf that fell from every tree was caught before it even hit the ground. Every cracked paving stone was replaced before the Emperor could see it. Every oil lamp was refilled every hour throughout the night so that not a single flame would go out.

It was through this wondrous place that the First Man strode on this day. Though he was transfixed by the chiselled cornices, the viridian ponds, and the onyx statues, he walked past them all to the great glasshouse at the centre of the palace that was the Emperor’s Menagerie.

Though the imperial palace had galleries, chambers, and halls that were the official locations where the discussion of legislation took place, the Emperor and his Barons and his Ministers actually spent very little time there. Instead they gathered in the Emperor’s Menagerie, every day, at midday, to discuss and give assent to policy.

The Emperor’s Menagerie was bright and humid. It had tall walls and many glass domes. The fronds of the ferns and the cycads were a lush green, and the pools that sat and the streams that ran throughout the building were clear.

But despite the grandeur of the architecture and the greenery of the Emperor’s Menagerie, most of the animals in it were rather unspectacular. There were lorikeets and parakeets, lemurs and macaques, pythons, puffins, porcupines, and pangolins, chameleons, tortoises, sloths, a jaguar, a giraffe, and even a hippopotamus, but they all looked rather tired and grey.

There was one exception to this, however – a unique specimen that was the Emperor’s prized possession. In the very centre of the Emperor’s Menagerie, beneath the great crystal dome and on a circular plinth of gold and garnet, sat an enormous … pink elephant.

The elephant was truly gigantic – twice the height, width, and length of a normal elephant. But as remarkable as its size was, it was nothing compared to the colour of its skin. The elephant’s skin was a lurid, electric fuchsia – a hot, shocking cyclamen. It was such a vile and offensive shade of magenta that it stung the eyes to look at it. It was so fluorescent that it drained all of the colour from everything around it.

The elephant was also disgusting. It gave off a nauseating stench of bitumen, vinegar, oyster sauce, burnt aubergine, and piss – the entire menagerie smelled of it. This may have been caused by its diet. The elephant did not eat leaves and grasses as normal elephants do – it ate incredibly expensive foods, provided to it at the behest of the Emperor and his Barons: caviar, goose liver, lobsters, artichokes stuffed with white truffle, bluefin tuna, and it ate all of this food in vast quantities. The servants of the Grand Imperial Palace would drag great bowls – four feet across – filled with this food up to the elephant every half hour. The more recently-appointed servants were given the task of carrying away the elephant’s shit, which was produced almost constantly.

All of this makes the Emperor’s Pink Elephant difficult to ignore, but ignore it you must, because if anyone talks about the elephant – whether they go on about it at length or just mention it – that person will be swiftly removed from the palace, and never be permitted to return.

Almost all of the people of the empire, however, at this point, were completely unaware of the existence of the pink elephant. As such, when the First Man strode through the glass doors of the Emperor’s Menagerie, to begin his first term as one of the Emperor’s Ministers, he gawped at the pink elephant, in shock and amazement. The pink elephant stared back, grinding crabshell in its teeth, bored with the turn of events.

The Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to the First Man, with their hands clasped together and forced smiles on their faces. They nodded politely as they asked the First Man pointless questions and ignored his answers. And after a few minutes, the First Man said ‘I had no idea that the Emperor had an enormous pink elephant in his menagerie! What an unusual creature!’

The Emperor’s other Ministers continued to smile and nod, but did not refer to the elephant themselves. They changed the conversation to something meaningless and dull.

An hour after the First Man had arrived in the menagerie, and before the First Man had had the chance to speak with the Emperor (who always stood on a raised area at the back of the glasshouse, dressed in imperial green and guarded by a number of his Barons) one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the First Man and said ‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace – there is a matter that requires your expertise.’ The First Man, suspecting nothing, followed the servant out of the menagerie and back to the golden gates of the palace.

He stepped through the gates of the palace. Once he was outside, the gates were closed behind him and locked, and the servant walked away.

The First Man, like those who had elected him to become a Minister, was naïve to the way that the palace operated, and so was confused. He had expected to find this matter outside the gates of the palace, but he did not. The servants had walked away, so there was no-one he could ask. He waited for an hour in case the matter reappeared, but it did not. Then he tried to get the attention of someone in the palace, but none came to him.

By the end of the day, he realised that this was not a mistake, and that he would not be permitted back into the palace, and could not take the people’s requests to the Emperor. What he couldn’t figure out was why.

He analysed the day’s events with the People of the Capital. He told them of everything that had happened while he had been inside the Grand Imperial Palace, and everything he had said to the Emperor’s Ministers. He told them that in the very centre of the Emperor’s Menagerie there was an enormous pink elephant that ate vast quantities of expensive food and gave off a foul odour, and that he had mentioned the elephant to the Ministers. But he had said so many things and made so many slight gestures that neither he nor the People could figure out which of them had led to his expulsion.

But the empire still had many problems, so, since they could not send the First Man back into the palace, the People of the Capital chose another from their group to become one of the Emperor’s Ministers in his stead. This Second Man was very similar to the first, but perhaps slightly more observant.

So the next day, just before lunch, this Second Man strode up to the golden gates of the imperial palace, to be admitted as the Emperor’s newest Minister. The gates swung outward, and the Second Man stepped forward into a world he had heard a few things about.

He walked the two miles from the entrance to the palace to the Emperor’s Menagerie, not stopping to marvel at the Opal Obelisk, Sereri’s Fresco, or the translucent chrysanthemums. But when he stepped through the glass doors of the menagerie, like the First Man, he was awestruck by the pink elephant. The elephant looked at him with impatience.

The Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to the Second Man, eyes eager and greedy. They chatted with the Second Man about things both tedious and irrelevant, and laughed at things that weren’t funny. And after a few minutes, the Second Man said ‘I must say, I knew that the Emperor had an enormous pink elephant in his menagerie, but I could not have anticipated just how vivid its skin is, or how pungent its smell is.’

‘His Majesty’s Menagerie has many wondrous and unique animals in it.’ one of the Emperor’s other Ministers said, though it wasn’t true in the slightest – all of the other animals were rather dull. ‘My favourite is the pigeons.’ he said, pointing up to the rafters, where hundreds of fat, grey pigeons sat.

‘Oh yes’, another Minister said. ‘Far better than those sparrows that used to be here. And I never liked that crane either.’

An hour after the Second Man had arrived in the menagerie, and before he had had the chance to speak with the Emperor, one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the Second Man and said ‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace – there is a matter that requires your expertise.’ The Second Man, also suspecting nothing, followed the servant out of the menagerie and back to the golden gates of the palace.

He passed through the gates, and they were locked behind him. He was tricked just as the First Man had been, though the Second Man realised this as soon as he heard the lock clink behind him.

The Second Man also analysed the day’s events with the People of the Capital. He told them everything he said and everything he did, and the People realised the only thing that both the First Man and the Second Man had done was to talk about the elephant in the room.

As ever, the problems with the empire persisted. The People resolved that they could not give up, so they chose a Third Man from their group to try to get into the palace and speak to the Emperor. But this time, he would go in with the intention of not saying a single word about the pink elephant, and if one of the Emperor’s servants said he was needed at the gates, he would try to find a way of not going.

So the next day the Third Man went in. When he stepped into the great glasshouse, the Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to him, whispering and glancing at each other. He did not say a single word about the elephant, but he did stare at it – it was difficult not to – its skin was so blindingly saturated. And of course, it was right in the middle of the room.

The Emperor’s other Ministers watched the Third Man as they prattled at him. They didn’t look towards the elephant themselves, but they knew that the Third Man was looking at it – they knew that he was thinking about it.

And after an hour, one of the Emperor’s servants walked up to the Third Man and said ‘Most honourable gentleman of the house, I bid that you come to the gates of the palace – there is a matter that requires your expertise.’

The Third Man immediately realised what was happening – they were trying to expel him from the palace – he must have done something the other Ministers didn’t like. ‘I’m sure the matter can wait.’ he said to the Emperor’s servant. ‘The discussion of policy is very important; I would not like to miss any of it.’

‘Oh that won’t start for ages yet.’ one of the Emperor’s other Ministers said. ‘We’ll probably just be babbling on for another few hours yet, as we do.’

‘Yes’, another Minister said, ‘you won’t miss anything – I’m sure you’ll have the time to deal with this matter.’

The Third Man had not anticipated this. ‘His Imperial Majesty expects all of his Ministers to be in attendance.’ he said.

‘Oh he won’t mind.’ one of the Ministers said.

‘Yes, I’m sure he won’t mind.’ another said with a smirk. ‘You should go.’

The Third Man couldn’t see how he could reason his way out of this. Everyone wanted him to go to the gates.

‘Very well.’ the Third Man said, after a moment, and he followed the servant out of the menagerie.

He knew that the moment he stepped outside of the palace, the gates would be locked behind him, and he wouldn’t be able to get back in, so he tried to think how he could avoid going through them. He could just run to a different part of the palace, he thought, but they would only find him, and then tell him to go to the gates again.

He couldn’t think of how to get out of this. When he got to the gates of the palace, which were wide open, he stopped before passing them, adamant he would not go a step further.

‘Well, where is this matter then?’ he said to the servant.

The Emperor’s servant said with half-lidded eyes ‘It is in the marketplace a short distance away from the palace. I will take you there.’

The Third Man was still suspicious. ‘What on earth is this matter?’

‘It will be easier to show you.’ the servant said.

Once again, the Third Man didn’t see how he could refuse. But the servant would be with him – they’d have to let the servant back into the palace when they returned, and he could go in at the same time. So the Third Man stepped past the gates of the palace, and followed the servant to the marketplace.

The marketplace was bustling. The Third Man followed the servant through the dense crowd as they wound between the stalls. He was almost starting to believe that there was some important matter for him to deal with, but for a moment he looked the other way, and when he looked back, the servant was gone.

The Third Man immediately realised what had happened, and pushed his way back through the crowd to try to get back to the palace as soon as possible. But when he arrived at the entrance, the gates were once again locked shut, and there was no-one on the other side who could or would open them.

Like the First Man and the Second Man, the Third Man told the People of the Capital everything that had happened. They realised that not only would talking about the elephant get you thrown out, but even looking at it – acknowledging it in any way.

So the People of the Capital sent a Fourth Man to the palace. The Fourth Man did not mention the elephant at all, nor did he stare at the elephant when he first walked into the menagerie. He managed to stay in the menagerie for longer than the first three had – most of the afternoon. But though he avoided staring at the elephant, when its amaranth skin caught the edge of his vision, he couldn’t help but steal a glance at it.

The Emperor’s other Ministers had been watching him closely the entire afternoon, even after they had run out of things to blather on about. They saw the Fourth Man look at the elephant for a fraction of a second, so the Fourth Man was expelled too.

The Fifth Man that the People sent in was the first one who managed to remain in the menagerie for a while. He said nothing about the elephant and did not look at it even for a moment.

He went into the menagerie at midday every day for a week, along with all of the Emperor’s other Ministers. The first few hours of every afternoon were spent rambling on about things that didn’t matter. Many of the Ministers would wander around the menagerie with one of their friends – the menagerie had many winding gravel paths through it (walled by emerald foliage, which prevented anything the Ministers whispered to each other from being overheard by others in the glasshouse).

It was only towards the end of each afternoon that any actual discussion of policy happened, and it was usually very quick. The Ministers and the Barons were in complete agreement on almost everything. The Emperor did not question any of the policies that were proposed – in fact he didn’t say anything at all in the discussion – and he gave assent to everything that the Ministers and the Barons decided upon. The Fifth Man realised that it was not the Emperor that he needed to speak to, but the Ministers and the Barons.

Over the days that he was there, the Fifth Man tried to convince the other Ministers of the policies that the People wanted. He tried to persuade them to support the rebuilding of bridges, aqueducts, and sewers. He tried to persuade them to put some of the palace’s great wealth towards building more houses, so that the people of the city would not have to live in such cramped spaces. He tried to persuade them to end the constant war and expansion – the empire was big enough as it was – any bigger and it might fracture.

He went from group to group within the menagerie, repeating the same arguments. The Ministers smiled and nodded. They responded with things like ‘What an interesting idea.’, ‘I couldn’t agree more.’, and ‘Oh yes, we must support the common people.’. But when he asked if they could put the policy to the Emperor, they said ‘Let’s do that tomorrow.’, or ‘This will fit well with a bill I’m writing for a few days’ time.’, or ‘Let’s talk to some more people about this.’.

But they never did. Every day they would defer it. The reasons were slightly different each day, but the effect was the same. Though the Ministers said that they liked the Fifth Man’s policies, they would never allow them to be put to the Emperor.

But while he was in the menagerie, the Fifth Man also realised something else. You see, while he did not look at the pink elephant, he could still see it. When his eyes were focused on something else, the pink elephant might be on the edge of his vision, and he could turn his mind’s eye towards it. And of course, the menagerie was made of glass – he could often see the elephant’s reflection in a window.

He knew what the elephant was doing at any one time – they all did – all of the Ministers knew. They all pretended not to, but everyone in the room knew what the elephant was doing, and they all knew that everyone else knew. But what the Fifth Man realised was that the pink elephant must have been costing the empire a fortune to keep. It ate a great bowl of the most expensive foods in the world every half hour for every hour it was awake. A team of eighty servants had the task of preparing all of the elephant’s food and bringing it to the elephant. Keeping the elephant cost more than all of the palace’s other daily expenses combined! The elephant was part of the problem! If they didn’t have to pay for the elephant, they would have more money to spend on repairing and rebuilding the city.

After a week, getting nowhere trying to persuade the other Ministers to put his policies to the Emperor, and seeing just how ridiculous it was keeping this disgusting, useless elephant in the menagerie, the Fifth Man snapped.

‘This is absurd!’ the Fifth Man shouted so that all of the Ministers and Barons could hear. ‘All of you are twattling on about things that don’t matter, and then passing legislation that does nothing to solve the actual problems of the empire, all the while ignoring that revolting elephant that is partially the cause of those problems! What are you doing?! What are you here for?! Why do you keep ignoring the elephant in the room?!’

The Fifth Man was completely right of course, but while he had understood the Ministers enough to be able to get into the menagerie, and even stay there for a few days, he did not understand them enough to realise that there was no point asking these questions, because the Ministers would not answer them – they would never answer them. No amount of rationality or rage would ever make them answer these questions.

The Fifth Man was greeted with gelid silence. All of the Ministers and Barons looked at the Fifth Man with stony expressions, insulted that anyone would be so direct about the elephant. The Fifth Man, looking around, realising that he had no power in the menagerie anymore, did not need to be expelled by deceptive means – he left the palace himself.

But of course, the problems of the empire persisted, and the People of the Capital sent in a Sixth Man, then a Seventh Man. The Sixth Man remained in the menagerie for several weeks, and the Seventh Man for several months. Neither of them said a word about the elephant, but as time went on, the two of them, and the People who put them there, realised that it didn’t matter whether or not they mentioned the elephant. The Ministers and the Barons simply didn’t want to implement the policies they were suggesting. All of them were in agreement, and anyone who did not agree with them would be removed – that way they kept their control over the Emperor and the empire – that way they stayed in power. And though they all did this – they all knew that this was what they were doing – they never acknowledged it.

The Sixth Man and the Seventh Man were eventually expelled too. The Eighth Man to go in tried a more radical method of solving the empire’s problems. He took a pistol into the menagerie, hidden in his coat. As soon as he saw the elephant, he took the pistol out, and shot at it. But the bullet bounced off the elephant’s skin (who would have known that in addition to being quinacridone the elephant’s skin was also bullet-proof?), and instead struck one of the Barons in the arm. (The Baron didn’t die – in fact he recovered remarkably quickly.) The Eighth Man was swiftly removed and imprisoned for life.

And then … the Ninth Man went in. By this point, most of the ordinary people in the empire knew about the pink elephant, and many realised too that the elephant was part of the problem. The Ninth Man had listened to everything his eight predecessors had said, and he had an idea. He asked that the People of the Capital choose him to be the next person to be sent to the palace, but he did not tell them what his idea was, knowing that he would not need to.

And so the Ninth Man, when the sun was high overhead, strode up to the glass doors of the menagerie, and went inside. He did not mention or look at the elephant. The Emperor’s other Ministers shuffled up to the Ninth Man, as they always did, and started talking small.

The Ninth Man said similarly dull things back to them. He caught a glint in their eyes – they thought they’d got one of their own this time.

And then after a few minutes of meaningless words, the Ninth Man said ‘Oh, by the way, I have brought a gift for the Emperor.’, and he signalled to one of the servants to bring it in.

The servant wheeled it in. It was covered by a satin cloth. With a flourish, the Ninth Man pulled the satin cloth off, revealing a large copper cage underneath it. And within the cage was a magnificent … turquoise flamingo.

The flamingo was delightful. Its plumage went from cyan to aquamarine to cerulean to teal. Its eyes were a glimmering silver. And the bird had an aroma of blueberries and pears.

‘Oh what a marvellous animal!’ the Emperor’s other Ministers all sang together. They then looked for a space for it within the menagerie; the Ninth Man directed them towards one of the spaces on one of the paths that wound through the building.

And then the afternoon wore on as it usually did. All of the Ministers spent several hours warbling and twittering at each other, and at the end of the afternoon, they voted on some legislation. The Ninth Man played along.

The Ninth Man stayed in the menagerie for many months. He did not mention or look at the pink elephant, even though he, like those before him, knew that it was a big problem. He chattered and jabbered with the other Ministers, and they were not suspicious of him. Everyone in the menagerie was overjoyed by the turquoise flamingo – most of all the Emperor, who often came down from his malachite throne to stare at the bird in its cage. Unlike the pink elephant, the turquoise flamingo was cheap to keep – it ate the sorts of foods that flamingos normally eat: small insects, molluscs, and crustaceans, and it didn’t eat all that much of them. The flamingo was a far better centrepiece for the menagerie than the elephant.

After many months had passed, it was time for the people of the empire to elect another Minister – well, two actually. They did so, and two people showed up at the glass doors of the menagerie. The Ministers – not including the Ninth Man – shuffled up to the two newcomers, as they always did. They watched them eagerly for many hours, to see if they would talk about the elephant or glance at it. Neither of them did – clearly both of them knew that they must not do so.

The two new Ministers walked around the menagerie, talking to people and gazing at the other animals. And then they came to the flamingo, which the Ninth Man always stood next to.

‘What a marvellous animal!’ the older one said. ‘Where did it come from?’

‘Oh I found it atop Mount Sarabaya.’ the Ninth Man said.

‘On top of a mountain?!’ the older one asked.

‘Yes. I climbed the mountain in an hour, found the bird standing at its summit, and then was back down again before tea.’

Anyone who knew anything about Mount Sarabaya knew that it could not be climbed in an hour – it normally took at least two days to scale the icy peak, and the same time again to get back down it.

‘That’s absurd!’ the older one said. ‘No-one could climb Mount Sarabaya in an hour!’

The Ninth Man puffed himself up and said proudly ‘I’ll have you know that I’ve won the Arennian Mountain Climbing Championship seven years in a row! I am undefeated to this day!’

Believing he had insulted the Ninth Man, the older of the two new Ministers stumbled over his words, saying ‘Oh … er … well, of course an ordinary person could not climb the mountain in an hour, but I’m sure it’s quite easy for a mountain climbing champion.’

‘Indeed it is!’

‘What are you talking about?!’ the younger one said. ‘It doesn’t matter how many championships you’ve won – no-one can scale Mount Sarabaya that quickly – it’s more than five miles high!’

‘As the current Arennian Mountain Climbing Champion I dare say I am the expert on mountaineering in this menagerie, and it is absolutely possible!’ the Ninth Man insisted.

‘Mount Sarabaya Base Camp is ten miles away from the summit! Unless you sprinted up the mountain, it’s not possible.’ the younger one said.

The older one gawped as this argument was happening – shocked that the younger one would dare suggest that the Minister didn’t know what he was talking about or was lying.

But the Ninth Man had actually succeeded in his aim. ‘Well perhaps you’re right.’ he said to the younger one. ‘It was so long ago – it’s all just a blur now. Perhaps it simply felt like an hour.’ and the conversation moved on to other things.

Later in the afternoon, the Ninth Man took one of the servants aside and whispered to him ‘The older of the two new Ministers is a most talented person. I think we need to find ways to help him use those talents.’

The servant understood, and a few minutes later the older of the two new Ministers was expelled from the palace, in the same way the First Man had been.

The younger of the two new Ministers was allowed to stay. Both he and the Ninth Man did not talk about or look at the pink elephant. They smiled and nodded along with the other Ministers, and did not attempt to persuade them to support better policies, for both of them knew that they never would.

A few months later, and another two people were chosen by the public to become Ministers. They stepped into the menagerie one day, and they successfully ignored the pink elephant. They soon came over to the turquoise flamingo, where the Ninth Man stood.

‘What a marvellous animal!’ the shorter one said. ‘How on earth did it acquire such a colour?’

‘I believe it is a rare species. I saw a similarly-coloured flamboyance of flamingos when I was travelling across the Manjure.’

‘There are flamingos in the Manjure?!’ the shorter one asked.

‘Yes of course. Flamingos like hot weather.’

Anyone who knew anything about the Manjure knew that it was in fact freezing cold there most of the year. It was a vast, dense, boreal forest, interrupted only by icy streams and snow-covered mountains.

‘What on earth are you talking about?!’ the shorter one said. ‘The Manjure is freezing cold!’

The Ninth Man puffed himself up and said proudly ‘I’ll have you know that I have travelled along the Trans-Manjurean Railway no fewer than seven times! I’m quite familiar with the Manjurean climate!’

Believing he had insulted the Ninth Man, the shorter of the two new Ministers stumbled over his words, saying ‘Oh … well … I suppose you must be very familiar with the region then.’

‘You suppose correctly!’

‘That’s absurd!’ the taller one said. ‘The Manjurean caribou is famous for its thick fur. The Manjurean caribou would all die of heat exhaustion if the Manjure were a tropical climate!’

‘I am good friends with the leading expert in the climate and geography of the Manjure at the University of Marcanne! I dare say that I’m more familiar with it than you!’ the Ninth Man insisted.

‘Being friends with an expert does not make you an expert. Unless the climate of the Manjure has changed drastically in the last few years, it absolutely is not a hot region!’ the taller one said.

The shorter one gawped as this argument was happening – shocked that the taller one would dare suggest that the Minister didn’t know what he was talking about or was lying.

But the Ninth Man had once again succeeded in his aim. ‘You know what I think you might be right.’ he said to the taller one. ‘I’m thinking of Bansoor – that’s where I saw those flamingos. The service on the Bansoor Express is so awful I think I blocked it from my memory.’ and the conversation moved on to other things.

Later in the afternoon, the Ninth Man took one of the servants aside and whispered to him ‘The shorter of the two new Ministers is a most talented person. I think we need to find ways to help him use those talents.’

The servant understood, and a few minutes later the shorter of the two new Ministers was expelled from the palace. Now there were two Ministers in the menagerie who the Ninth Man had allowed to stay. They and the Ninth Man played along with the faux concern of the Emperor’s other Ministers.

And this was how it continued for many months – years even. Whenever a new Minister entered the menagerie, first the Cabal stalked them, to see if they would acknowledge the pink elephant, and then the Ninth Man countered it. The Cabal believed that everyone in the menagerie was part of the Cabal, since they expelled anyone who acknowledged the pink elephant, but really the only people who stayed in the menagerie were those who the Ninth Man did not expel.

Over time, more and more of the court was on the side of the turquoise flamingo. They waited not just until they could win any vote against the old Ministers and the Barons, but until almost all of the old Ministers had been replaced – otherwise the supporters of the pink elephant would realise that their strategy was no longer working, and would change it.

And once this had happened, those on the side of the turquoise flamingo started to put forward and vote for policies that would benefit the people of the empire – much to the shock of the Barons.

They voted for bridges to be rebuilt, for sewers to be maintained, and for houses to be built further apart so that fires would not leap from one to another so easily. They voted to pay for doctors to heal the diseased; they voted to nullify debts; they voted to end the wars of expansion. They voted to remove the Barons from the menagerie, and the people of the empire started to prosper once again.

And at the end of all of that, they voted to release the pink elephant back to the wild. It was taken over the sea and released into the humid forests of Bansoor.

But not just that – they also released the turquoise flamingo, for now that there was no-one left in the menagerie who would use the pink elephant for deceit, there was no need for the turquoise flamingo. Those coming to the menagerie would no longer be expelled for talking about the elephant in the room. They would only need the turquoise flamingo again if the pink elephant were brought back.

The pigeons left the menagerie, and the sparrows returned. And every now and then, on a clear day, the people of the city could just about see, flying high in the sky … a turquoise flamingo.


Original story and artwork, Copyright © Benjamin T. Milnes

Featured

The Magic Money Tree

There was once a great city.

Hundreds of thousands of people lived in this city. But the people were divided into two groups: the Many, and the Few.

For the Few, life in this great city was wonderful, for the Few were very wealthy. They lived in grand houses on the banks of the river that meandered through the city. Each marble mansion was filled with drawing rooms and dining rooms and more than forty bedrooms. Each grand hallway was filled with gold-framed oil paintings and fine china vases. The baths were made of burnished bronze and the toilet seats were solid silver. Every house had an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, and a glasshouse. And the gardens stretched a hundred yards, all the way to the river, with orange trees and lemon trees to sit beneath in summer.

The Few lived lavishly. The mornings were spent dressing for lunch. At lunch they sat with their true friends, eating chocolate cake and cream-filled pastries, gossiping about who among the Few had the most money. The afternoons were spent dressing for dinner, and every evening they sat with their fair-weather friends and feasted on all manner of fowl, stuffed inside one another – a quail stuffed inside a duck, stuffed inside a pheasant, stuffed inside a grouse, stuffed inside a chicken, stuffed inside a goose, stuffed inside a turkey, all roasted in lard with potatoes, parsnips, and pork sausages. They talked about the fate and fortunes of the city, all the while trying to curry favour with the few of the Few who held the most power and influence in the city. And at the end of every evening, they shat out the feast from the day before, clogging the sewers that took their shit to the river.

For the Many, however, life in this great city was grim, for the Many were not wealthy. The Many lived far from the river, on the higher ground. In this part of the city, timber-framed houses overhung narrow cobblestone streets. The rooms of the houses were small, with low ceilings. Twelve would live in a house built for two. There were no sewers in this part of the city, so shit sloshed down the streets, and the Many had to step over the brown rivers as they pushed past each other.

The Many lived meagrely. They woke up early, and worked for twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours of the day, in factories making cotton or iron. The work was repetitive and the air was filled with coal smoke. They were given no time to rest, and if someone did not produce enough in one day, the factory owner – who was often one of the Few – found someone to replace them. They were paid little, and if they were lucky, at the end of each day they had enough money to buy fresh bread and vegetables, but if they were unlucky they would have to catch rats and pigeons.

The death rate among the Many was high. Those who did not die of starvation died of disease. Those who did not die of disease were killed in the factories. And those who were not killed in the factories killed themselves. The death brought more disease and despair, and always more young people flooded into the city from the countryside, believing it would be a better life.

It had been this way in the city for many years. No-one could remember a time when it wasn’t so. Indeed many believed that it had always been so – since the beginning of time itself. (But in reality it had only been this way for a few decades.)

Everyone in the city knew the myth of the Magic Money Tree. It was said that far away, deep in the icy mountains north of the city, there grew a tree … with leaves of pure gold. And the tree did not drop its leaves once a year, as most trees do, but every day, and each morning new golden leaves grew. The leaves that covered the ground could be gathered and melted down to make gold bars or coins.

If the tree were real, and the Many knew where it was, many of their problems would be solved. The Many could journey to the tree, gather up some of its golden leaves, melt them down into coins, and then when they were back in the city they could pay for more spacious houses, better food, and better clothes. They may even be able to buy many of the luxuries that the Few had. Sure, after a while, gold would be very common, and the Few would not have so much of it by comparison, but it would mean that a happy life was not so immutably the domain of so few.

But everyone (almost everyone) agreed that the tree did not exist. It was fiction. You might go into the mountains in search of the tree, but you would find nothing. There was no Magic Money Tree.

Except that … there was.

The tree … was real! The Magic Money Tree did exist! Its golden leaves, its copper bark, the sapphires and rubies that grew like fungi among its roots – it was all real …

… and the Few knew where it was.

But the Few did not want anyone else to know where the tree was, because they too realised that if the Many were given access to the tree, the Many would become wealthier, and the Few would become less wealthy by comparison. The Few did not want to lose their lavish lifestyle, and so did not want the Many to have access to the tree.

But if the Few acknowledged that the tree existed, and kept only its location to themselves, the Many might still be able to find it. A small number of them might venture into the mountains, and, given enough time, they would find the Magic Money Tree. So rather than just keep the location of the tree a secret, they also tried to keep its existence a secret. They pretended that it did not exist. Whenever anyone who was not one of the Few asked whether the tree was real, they would say loudly ‘Don’t be ridiculous! There is no Magic Money Tree!’. But in the evenings, when they were among the Few, they all acknowledged the tree’s existence, and shared the location of it with each other.

While most of the Many believed that the tree did not exist, there were some who knew that it did. This was partly because the Few’s deception was conspicuous – they were so fervent in their dismissal of the idea that the tree existed that it was suspicious. But it was also because they were somewhat careless in keeping their secret – lavishness and meticulousness are rarely found in the same person, it seems. Some of the Many worked for the Few in their mansions – as servants and cooks – and often did they hear the Few, through doors both open and closed, talk about the very real tree. This information found its way to those among the Many who were more vocal about the great wealth disparity in the city.

These more vocal people tried to convince the rest of the Many that the tree was real, and that the Few knew it. They tried to convince them that the Few were deceiving them, because if the Many found where the tree was, the Few would not remain so wealthy for very long. But as loud as they shouted, the Few shouted louder, and indeed the Few paid some of the Many to shout for them. And ultimately it was the intuitiveness, not the veracity, of what the Few said that swayed so many of the Many. ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ they said. ‘Have you ever seen a tree with golden leaves and copper bark? Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’

Except that … it did.

One year, there was a great flood. It had rained continuously for two weeks, and the river through the centre of this great city overflowed its banks. The Many were hardly affected by this at all. They lived on the higher ground far away from the river – the water did not reach their houses. The Few, however, lost a lot. All of their houses lined the river, and all were flooded. The water rose half-way up the ground floor, turning all of their oil paintings to brown sludge, and warping all of their antique wooden furniture. The cellars and glasshouses, pools and gardens, were all turned into bogs.

The cost to repair it all would have been enormous. While most of the Few had enough money to pay for all of the repairs to their houses and gardens, it would have been a substantial fraction of their total wealth. And the Few were reluctant to give up so much money.

But as the Few knew the location of the Magic Money Tree, they decided that, rather than spend any of their current wealth on the repairs, they would simply go to the golden tree, gather the golden leaves on the ground around it, melt them into gold coins, and spend those on the repairs.

And that’s exactly what they did. A small number of the Few made an expedition to the mountains. They found the Magic Money Tree, which grew in a shallow between two great summits, its golden leaves and copper bark reflecting the light in a thousand directions down the valley. They gathered the leaves on the ground, cut away some of the bark, and dug in the soil around the roots to find the rubies and sapphires. Once they had filled the sleds, they hauled their riches back to the city.

When they got back to the city, they melted down the gold and minted hundreds of thousands of new gold coins. They paid a select few artisan stonemasons, decorators, and gardeners to repair their houses and their gardens, and any money that was left over they kept.

The Many saw all of this. Most did not see the sleds being dragged into the city, for they were brought in under cover of darkness, but they saw all of the repairs being made to the houses and gardens, and they saw all of the rubies and sapphires that were given out as payment. But they did not question it. They did not question where the riches came from.

Those among the Many who knew that the tree existed shouted that that’s where the Few had gotten the money from. ‘They have gotten all of this money from the Magic Money Tree!’ they said. ‘The tree is real – the Few know where it is! But why should they be the only ones who have access to the tree? Why are their problems important enough such that they can use the money from the tree, but ours are not? We have starved for years; we have died for years; and throughout all of it they refused to use the tree, and pretended it did not exist! But at the first inconvenience to them, they will use the tree.’

But most of the Many did not believe it, for they were so rooted in the idea that money did not grow on trees, that even though they could not explain where all of this new gold had come from, they refused to even consider the possibility that the tree might exist, and that the Few simply didn’t want them to know about it.

Twelve years later, there was a great fire. The fire ravaged the city, burning both the areas where the Many lived and where the Few lived. Much of the city burned to the ground, and many people died.

Fortunately, a lot of people had managed to leave the city before the fire had reached their houses. They moved to the countryside around the city. For many, life improved – the air was less stale, there was less disease, and everyone had more space.

The fire burned through everything it could, and by the time it had burned itself out, not much was left of the city but smouldering ashes.

The Few, who were now living in their country mansions, discussed what they wanted to do about this. While a number of the Few had inherited their wealth, a lot also had owned factories and machinery that had been destroyed by the fire, and they were dependent on the profits from those factories to maintain their extraordinary wealth. (It cost a lot of money to eat a seven-bird roast every evening.) They wanted to rebuild the city, and bring all of the people back to it – give them factories to work in and houses to live in – so that they could continue to get the profits from what they produced.

But rebuilding the city would cost even more than it did to repair all of their houses as they did many years ago. This time, the Few absolutely did not have the money to pay for it all themselves, and the scale of the disaster was far bigger than what it had been before, so it was easy for the Few to decide: they would once again use the Magic Money Tree.

They made another expedition to the tree, taking far more sleds this time. This time they gathered every leaf in sight, even grabbing the ones off the tree that had not yet fallen that day. They cut away more of the bark, and picked up all of the branches that had fallen over the last few months. They burrowed for more rubies and sapphires, and they even picked the fruit of the tree, which was shaped like a pear, but which was silvery-green in colour, and which instead of seeds at the centre had small pearls. (It was also said that eating the fruit would give you an extra eight years of life.)

They brought all of it back to the city, and they paid for all of the factories and houses to be rebuilt. This lured the Many back to the city – they moved into newer, but still just as small, houses, and began working in factories again, though the work was still repetitive, and the coal furnaces blasted out just as much smoke.

But still, even though the Many themselves were the ones that the Few paid to rebuild the houses and the factories – even though they had been given the gold and rubies and sapphires from the tree – they had held it in their hands – they still did not believe that the tree existed.

‘Where do you think they got the money from?!’ those among the Many who did know that the tree existed said. ‘They didn’t have all of this money before – where do you think it came from?! They went to the tree again!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ the Few shouted. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’

‘Yes, don’t be ridiculous!’ the rest of the Many parroted. ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know!’

‘There is no Magic Money Tree.’ they chorused together.

And nothing changed. Within a few years, the city had returned to how it had been before the fire. The Few still held control over the tree. Only when it was in their interest did they harvest its leaves, but always did they pretend that it did not exist. And never did the Many learn, that sometimes, when someone doesn’t want you to do something, rather than try to persuade you not to do it, they will try to deny that it is even physically possible.

When actually … it is.


Original story, Copyright © Benjamin T. Milnes

Featured

Dramatic Dissonance

In my reviews of Star Trek Picard, I’ve started using the term ‘dramatic dissonance’ to describe something that we’re seeing on-screen. This particular phenomenon or quality may already have a term to describe it – if it does, I don’t know what it is, so for now I’m going to use ‘dramatic dissonance’ (to mimic the phrase ‘dramatic irony’). And while I’ve started using this term in my Star Trek Picard reviews, it’s something I’ve seen in lots of other shows too – like Star Trek Discovery and recent Doctor Who – so I thought I’d write a blog post about it in order to define it more clearly.

Dramatic dissonance is when the reactions of the characters to each other, or to the events of the story, are different to the audience’s reaction to the characters or to the events of the story.

Here’s an example of this: one character says something, and several other characters around them consider it a very awkward thing to say, or a faux pas, but the audience doesn’t think that it’s an awkward thing to say.

Here’s another: one character does something (it could be anything), and all of the characters around them think that this character is a genius for doing it, but the audience isn’t impressed by it at all.

This second example is one we’ve seen a lot in both Star Trek Picard and Star Trek Discovery – in fact this second example is often a way of determining whether a character is a Mary Sue. (Other characters will just think that they’re brilliant no matter what they do.)

Dramatic dissonance is a bad quality for a show to have. It is, by its very definition, unrealistic, and if a show has it, the audience will sense something is amiss, even if they can’t quite put it into words. The audience can sense it because things in the show don’t seem to make sense.

I’m not sure I could exactly say what the origins of dramatic dissonance in a show actually are, but I don’t think it’s an acting problem – I think it comes from the writing. It may come from writers thinking too much about ‘How do I want this character to react?’ rather than ‘How would they react?’.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith – Review

So, Episode III. I get the sense that this is the prequel film that people like the most. It does have a great many excellent moments – particularly after the half-way point, where Anakin becomes Darth Vader. I like almost everything in the second half of this film.

As with the review for the previous film, in this review I’m going to have to go through the events of the film in mostly-chronological order. (I would prefer to split the review by the different aspects of filmmaking, but that’s not really possible with this film.) A lot happens in this film, and a lot of the scenes we see build very rapidly on previous scenes.

The opening sequence is excellent. Such a complex, low-altitude space battle is not something we’ve seen before in this series. And George Lucas putting it over Coruscant leads to many interesting questions – if anything of sufficient size falls to the ground, it will cause A LOT of destruction – there’s nothing but city down there – anything that falls WILL kill a lot of people. Since Palpatine is ultimately orchestrating this entire war, and could stop it at any moment, it shows how little regard he has for the people of the soon-to-be empire.

The buzz droids are also not something we’ve seen before. They are an interesting new weapon, and an example of good world-building. In a universe with droids as clever and common as R2-D2, buzz droids would definitely exist.

We even get some good character moments in the opening sequence. Anakin’s determination to save Obi-wan from the buzz droids makes the ending to this film all the more tragic. But then despite Anakin saving Obi-wan, Obi-wan still berates Anakin – as he did throughout the last film – that Grievous’ ship’s shields are still up.

Ian McDiarmid and Christopher Lee are brilliant as always. If this film were released today, I’m sure the way McDiarmid plays Palpatine would be described as over-the-top, cartoonish – or even slightly flamboyant. There is a trend at the moment for gritty villains. But McDiarmid playing the character in this way is what makes it enjoyable – the character isn’t supposed to be some pretentious mIrRoR tO tHe AuDiEnCe – he’s supposed to be the embodiment of pure evil – someone who is devious and cunning – and McDiarmid plays that perfectly.

Like with the last two films, there are some odd lines of dialogue in this film. Some very noticeable examples are in the conversation between Anakin and Obi-wan after they have gotten the chancellor back, and just before Obi-wan goes back to the temple. This entire conversation is a bit off – the whole thing sounds like two actors acting rather than two people who are actually friends talking to each other. Once again, I think this is a writing problem – the lines just haven’t been written in a very natural way.

We then get many scenes that are great setup for Anakin’s fall. Anakin starts getting visions of Padmé’s death and he goes to Yoda for advice. (As a side note, I really like that Anakin can go to Grandmaster Yoda – this again shows how Yoda is not just the leader of a martial order, but a spiritual one too – he has to be involved as much in the moral training of the Jedi as the day-to-day running of a martial school.) The advice that Yoda gives Anakin is ‘Train yourself to let go.’.

This is the worst possible advice to give Anakin at this moment – he is never going to follow that advice. This shows how even if the Jedi’s teachings are correct, they did not adjust how they taught them for Anakin – who of course, was older than most people are when they join the Jedi Order – they knew he had already formed attachments – they needed to adjust his training based on that. And here, Yoda doesn’t know the exact details of Anakin’s situation, of course, but as soon as a Jedi as powerful as Anakin – and the Chosen One – came to him talking about fearing someone’s death, Yoda should have inquired more. This should have been a red flag for Yoda.

Anakin keeps getting bad instruction and bad advice from the Jedi Order – Obi-wan constantly berates him, and now when he goes to Yoda he doesn’t get the right advice. They are not good mentors for Anakin.

At the same time, Anakin sees Palpatine as an excellent mentor – his true mentor. There are several scenes in the previous film and this one that show that Palpatine has befriended Anakin over the time he’s been on Coruscant. (In truth, these scenes have told us this rather than shown it – through off-hand lines of dialogue. Seeing Palpatine befriend Anakin should probably have been a more major component of these films, given how important it is – it could certainly have replaced some of the overly-long action sequences – but I’m not sure it could ever have been given enough time given that this is just three films – this is perhaps another reason why the story of the prequels might be better told through a long-form television series than a film series, but at the time the prequels were made, such series’ were less common.)

Palpatine often compliments Anakin. In the previous film, Palpatine tells Anakin ‘You are the most gifted Jedi I have ever met.’. Later in this film, he says that Anakin is the obvious choice to be the one to hunt down General Grievous, and at around this point in the film he tells Anakin that he is appointing him to be his personal representative on the Jedi Council. Anakin immediately assumes that this means he will be a Jedi Master, and from his reaction it is apparent that he has always wanted this (and probably believes that he already should be one). For the entire time that Anakin has been training to be a Jedi, he has been told that he is the Chosen One – he is expected to be a great Jedi, and he has always wanted to meet that expectation. After years of feeling like Obi-wan has been holding him back, it is now Palpatine who allows him to progress. Anakin keeps receiving good sentiments from Palpatine, and now Palpatine is giving him the opportunity to do something he’s always wanted to do – Anakin sees Palpatine as a good mentor. This is all excellent setup for Anakin’s fall.

The Jedi give Anakin a seat on the Council, but they do not grant him the rank of master. Anakin is angered by this. He sees it as unfair, and as the Council deliberately holding him back. This adds to Anakin seeing the Jedi Council as being in opposition to him (something which started when Anakin first met the Jedi Council in Episode I – they did not want him to be trained as a Jedi – his first impression of the Jedi Council was as something that would get in the way of what he wants to be and do).

Then the Council asks Anakin to report on what the chancellor is up to. Anakin strongly dislikes this – it goes against the Jedi Code – it goes against what he has been taught that it means to be a good Jedi. Anakin first being denied the rank of master and then being asked to spy on Palpatine are more excellent setup for Anakin’s fall. First he is prevented from being the great Jedi he wants and is expected to be, and then he is asked to do something that a great Jedi would never do. It puts Anakin in direct conflict with the Council, and he realises that they are not the moral paragons that he has been taught that they are (which leads into the later line of ‘From my point of view the Jedi are evil.’). The Jedi Council asking him off-record to do this makes it worse – they are being secretive and deceptive – qualities that are associated with the Sith. The line from Obi-wan at the end of the scene ‘The Council is asking you.’ is the perfect line to end on – this makes it clear to Anakin that it is the Jedi Council – and thus the institution of the Jedi – that is the problem.

This scene also shows Anakin’s naïveté when it comes to politics. Palpatine putting Anakin on the Jedi Council was him trying to get Anakin to spy on the Council for him, but Anakin didn’t see it that way, because it wasn’t put that way (and because Anakin was blinded by ambition). Anakin should have disliked the idea of reporting on what the Council was doing to Palpatine as much as the idea of reporting on what Palpatine was doing to the Council, but he didn’t, because he couldn’t see what Palpatine was up to.

All of this is a master stroke of writing. We see how the Jedi are not good mentors to Anakin, while Anakin increasingly sees Palpatine as his true mentor. We see Anakin increasingly see the Council as being opposed to him, preventing him from becoming the great Jedi that he was told he would be and that he wants to be. We see the Jedi Council ask Anakin to do something against the Jedi Code – the moral code that they teach as the way to act – and spy on the very person who Anakin sees as his true mentor. This is all brilliant setup for Anakin’s fall.

After this we get the famous scene in the opera. This scene is so memorable that most Star Wars fans can quote it word for word. The best thing about this scene, of course, is Ian McDiarmid’s performance – again, maybe it’s a little bit over-the-top, but I think that’s good – that’s part of what makes it memorable. When I rewatched this film, one line that struck me as great was ‘If they haven’t included you in their plot, they soon will.’ – what a deliciously manipulative line for Palpatine to say to Anakin.

Shortly after that we get the final scene between Obi-wan and Anakin before Anakin turns to the Dark Side. Now, there’s nothing about the scene that suggests that this will be the last time they speak before Anakin turns to the dark side – there’s nothing foreboding about it – you only realise that it is the last scene when you rewatch the film, but that makes it all the more tragic. This final scene shows a very ordinary conversation. This means that from Obi-wan’s point of view, everything seemed fine, and it’s only when he returns from Utapau that he starts to see what’s happened.

What’s also interesting about this scene is that we finally see Obi-wan praise Anakin – ‘You have become a far greater Jedi than I could ever hope to be.’ – after berating him almost constantly for years. Had Obi-wan not berated Anakin so much, Anakin might not have started seeing Palpatine as his true mentor, but this praise is too late.

The world design of Utapau is excellent – we’ve not seen a world like this before in Star Wars. The prequels are excellent in how many new worlds and species are introduced. Grievous has an interesting character design – once a completely biological lifeform, he is now mostly machine – good foreshadowing of what Anakin will become. The fight scene between Obi-wan and Grievous is perhaps overly long (or perhaps other parts of the film are not long enough), but at least it incorporates elements that we’ve not seen before.

The scene where Anakin realises that Palpatine is a Sith Lord is good, but it needed to be a bigger moment. This is a pivotal moment in the story of the prequels – this moment and the moment where Anakin becomes Palpatine’s apprentice are possibly the two biggest moments – but it doesn’t entirely seem like the big revelation that it should be for Anakin. For that I think there needed to be more focus on Anakin’s reactions to every line Palpatine said, and more tension in the scene overall. The success of this scene depends not on the audience realising that Palpatine is a Sith Lord – we already know that – but on us seeing Anakin realise that, and understanding how he reacts to it – which we don’t get enough. Anakin has been told he is the Chosen One who will destroy the Sith for years – we should have seen a reaction from him of deep suspicion and indecision.

And then we get to the most important scene of the prequels – the scene where the Jedi try to arrest Palpatine, and where Anakin turns to the Dark Side and becomes Palpatine’s new apprentice.

As has been commented many times before, the fighting between Palpatine and the Jedi could have been a lot better. It veers between fairly slow, simple fight choreography between the actual actors, and a CGI Ian McDiarmid jumping around unnecessarily. This should have been an epic, memorable fight, and it’s not (well, it’s memorable for the wrong reasons). I get the sense from behind-the-scenes videos that they just didn’t spend enough time on this aspect of the scene.

Mace Windu overpowers Palpatine, of course, and then Anakin comes in. Anakin has not seen the fight, nor heard anything that Palpatine said to the Jedi, and now he must choose who to believe about what has happened. The setup to this moment is fantastic – who does Anakin believe? Does he believe Master Windu, who has never trusted him – who was the person who said that he wouldn’t be trained as a Jedi, and then that he would not be given the rank of master – who is part of the Jedi Council, which Anakin has long found frustrating, and which asked him to do something against the Jedi Code, and who is now about to do something against the Jedi Code? Or does he believe the person he has long seen as his true mentor, and who claims can teach him how to save Padmé? It’s glaringly obvious which one he would choose in the end.

I like almost everything in the film from the point where Anakin turns to the Dark Side onwards. The music as Order 66 is executed is fantastic – sorrowful, mournful. We even get some great world-building as that happens – we see several completely new planets, with very different terrains and life-forms, just for a few seconds each as part of the montage. It’s more world-building than we get in all of the Disney films. The sight of the Jedi Temple on fire at night is also delightfully tragic.

The fight between Anakin and Obi-wan on Mustafar is one of the highlights of the trilogy, I think. Mustafar is another environment that we haven’t seen so far in the series, and an excellent choice of backdrop for a fight between father and son, or between brothers, that will decide the fate of the galaxy. The music – Battle of the Heroes – is outstanding – both epic and tragic. I know very little about sword-fighting, so I couldn’t say exactly how good or bad the fight choreography is, but throughout the entire sequence, it looks like both characters are giving it all they’ve got.

I think possibly the best line of the prequel trilogy is Obi-wan saying ‘I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.’ – because it is absolutely true, and it’s only now that it’s too late that Obi-wan has realised it.

It is a beautiful tragedy when Obi-wan has to watch Anakin be burned by the lava. He has to watch the destruction of his pupil and brother, who by this point hates him not just because he is on the opposing side of a war, but because he has been the source of his frustration for years, and is now just letting him burn. I think Christensen performs brilliantly in this scene (and so does McGregor, when I think about it).

There are some bad lines in this part of the film. Some of Padmé’s lines when she’s talking to Anakin after she arrives on Mustafar are a bit odd. I think that, as ever, this is down to how the dialogue is written – it’s far too terse – and a lack of reaction shots and close-ups. Also, after the Mustafar sequence, when Padmé is dying, and the robot says ‘She’s dying, and we don’t know why … She’s lost the will to live.’ – this is a bit daft.

At the same time as the sequence on Mustafar, we see the fight between Yoda and Palpatine. Once again, Lucas finds a way of doing something different with the fight – this one taking place in the main senate hall. The destruction of the senate hall as the head of the Sith and the head of the Jedi fight is a simple symbolism, but a satisfying one.

After all of that, there are various short scenes that wind down the film, and the trilogy. Qui-gon being the first Jedi to become a force ghost is a nice touch – you get the sense that if there’s anyone who would be the first, it would be him. Padmé’s funeral, while short, and sort of cliché, is beautifully tragic – and a great scene to have at the end of this trilogy – the tragedy of Padmé Amidala and the tragedy of Anakin Skywalker are essentially one and the same.

This film has an extraordinary number of excellent aspects. It has some bad lines of dialogue, and there are many missing reaction shots. Some of the scenes are too long, others too short, others not impactful enough. The film has many flaws, but I don’t think they at all outweigh the extraordinary number of good things about the film. This is an excellent, but imperfect, film.

This is the same as what I said about the previous two films. There are many, many great things about this trilogy, and the idea that it was a complete disaster, as some people seem to think, is completely flawed. To see this trilogy as a disaster, you would have to ignore about 90% of it, and over-focus on about four or five lines of dialogue throughout the three films. You would have to ignore all of the great world-building, the great actors, the great performances, the great sword fights, the great costume design, the great music, a story structure which is unlike most of what we get from modern Hollywood (one of the things people who like The Last Jedi claim is great about the film was that it didn’t follow the same tired structure that a lot of space fantasy films do – well the prequels also don’t follow that same structure), and you would have to over-focus on ‘I don’t like sand.’ – a line so forgettable and ignorable that I’m amazed anyone at all complains about it.

If nothing else, writing these reviews has shown me just how many things I like about these films, and I will now be able to come back to this review if I want to think over these things again.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones – Review

So, Episode II. The objective with this review is going to be the same as with the previous one. The objective is to examine some of the main flaws of the film (some, but not all), but also to point out some of the good things in it.

To broadly summarise the problems with this film, while its overall structure moves things in the right direction (in the sense that it sets up many of the things that it needs to for Anakin’s fall and Palpatine’s rise in the subsequent film) it again comes across more as an outline than a story. Many crucial scenes are too short, and crucial reactions are wrong or missing. Many of the scenes do not develop the tension as the story progresses. Because of this I’m going to have to go through the film in (mostly) chronological order.

The first scene of interest is the scene where we see Obi-wan and Anakin in the elevator. This is when we first see the older Anakin, and when we see how much time has passed between the previous film and this one.

This scene attempts to set up the relationship between Anakin and Obi-wan. This scene tries to show us that even though Obi-wan is Anakin’s mentor, and is senior to him within the Jedi Order, they are friends, and have had many off-screen adventures. They have – dare I say – a bit of banter. (It’s pretty weak, early-2000s banter, but it is banter.) This is supposed to show how well they know each other, but it’s actually a bit off. I wouldn’t describe the dialogue in this scene as rigid, but it doesn’t really sell it. This scene comes across – slightly – as two actors acting, rather than two people who know each other very well talking as they realistically would. It’s not very convincing. This is a problem, because the final battle between Anakin and Obi-wan in the next film is made much more significant if we are convinced that these two people have known each other for a decade and were friends.

This is, I think, primarily a writing problem. The dialogue that’s been written for this scene is not easy to perform. It’s quite minimal – it includes only what it needs to in order to convey the facts of the story and no more. This is a problem with A LOT of the dialogue in this film. It might have been good, in this part of the scene, to let the actors improvise, but of course it’s very difficult for actors to improvise if the story takes place in a very different universe (because they don’t know what the reference points would be).

This scene also attempts to set up that Anakin is nervous to meet Padmé, which it does quite well. I actually think that Hayden Christensen performs many of the lines in this scene very well. (It’s mainly Ewan McGregor’s lines that are a bit off.)

After this, Obi-wan and Anakin meet Padmé, who is now the senator for Naboo. This is the second scene of interest (well, really it’s the same scene as the previous one, but for simplicity let’s call it the second scene). This is also a crucial scene.

This scene tries to show us, again, that Anakin is nervous to meet Padmé, and that this is because he hasn’t stopped thinking about her since they met ten years ago. This is an often-criticised scene. A lot of people complain that this scene is wooden or awkward. But I think this criticism is incorrect. Anakin is supposed to be awkward when he first meets Padmé in this film, because he is nervous. Anakin has spent the last ten years living and training within a religious order – he has no experience of this. I think Christensen performed this in the right way. I think the problem with this scene is that we don’t get the right reaction shots. We don’t get any reaction shot of Obi-wan, who is standing right next to him, and who must have seen and heard the whole thing. We needed a reaction shot from Obi-wan expressing ‘What on earth are you doing?’. We also needed a slightly different reaction from Padmé. While Padmé’s reaction does suggest that she’s noticed how awkward Anakin is being, it’s not strong enough, given just how awkward Anakin is being. A third reaction shot from one of the other characters in the room would also have been good. So the problem with this part of the scene is that we the audience don’t get the sense that the characters have realised the same things we’ve realised, even though they should.

The same problem happens later in the scene. When they’re all talking about what Obi-wan and Anakin are there to do, Anakin cuts in and promises more than what they’re supposed to do, and Obi-wan has to walk things back. This moment is in many ways quite good – it shows that Anakin is headstrong and will argue back with people who are senior to him in the Jedi Order. These are traits that lead to various events in this film, and to his eventual downfall. However, again, in this part of the scene, we don’t get the right reaction shots and we don’t get enough of them. Anakin arguing back against a senior Jedi – which he’s not supposed to do, and everyone there knows it – should make the whole conversation tense, and we should see this in reaction shots from the other characters, but we don’t. This gives the whole interaction less of an impact. However, as I say, it does show the essential traits of Anakin.

The third scene of interest is shortly after this. It starts with Anakin and Obi-wan standing guard outside the room where Padmé’s sleeping. An assassination attempt is made, and it leads to a speeder chase through Coruscant at night.

At the start of this scene, there is some dialogue between Anakin and Obi-wan. Anakin says how he would like to dream of Padmé, and for the first time in the film we get some indication that Obi-wan has realised that Anakin is attracted to Padmé. He reminds Anakin ‘You have made a commitment to the Jedi Order – a commitment not easily broken.’.

This moment is crucial. In this moment, we the audience are informed that Anakin must not fall for Padmé. It’s important that we understand the magnitude of this – we must really get a sense that this must not happen. Without that sense, we will not get a strong enough sense that Anakin and Padmé’s romance is a forbidden one, and we won’t get a sense of foreboding as we watch it happen. We don’t really get this sense strongly enough in this scene – because it’s only one line. In this moment we really needed to get a sense of what would happen if Anakin were to fall for Padmé – we needed a stronger sense of what the consequences to that would be. We needed more of an idea of how the Jedi Order – the institution – would react, and we don’t really get that.

Another important aspect of this scene happens during the speeder chase. I get a sense that a lot of people don’t like the speeder chase. I myself have never minded it, because I have always found that it is the other things that are happening that are more interesting and important.

During this chase, we see even more examples of Anakin being headstrong – he does several dangerous manoeuvres, despite Obi-wan’s warnings (and the fact that Anakin succeeds at those manoeuvres shows how he has become used to his extraordinary powers). But we also see, many times, another important aspect of how Anakin and Obi-wan interact. Obi-wan often berates Anakin (‘If you spent as much time practising your saber technique as you did your wit, you would rival Master Yoda as a swordsman.’, ‘I thought I already did.’, ‘Only in your mind, my very young apprentice.’) and Anakin often apologises to him. This is crucial.

The fourth scene of interest is shortly after this, and is the scene between Anakin and Padmé just before they leave for Naboo. In this scene, Anakin says how he finds Obi-wan frustrating. (‘It’s infuriating. He’s overly critical; he never listens.’) However, he then says that he does actually appreciate having Obi-wan as a mentor. (‘I am truly thankful to be his apprentice.’) Anakin first says that he finds Obi-wan frustrating, but then, knowing that he is supposed to follow the customs of the Jedi Order, and show deference to his teachers, he expresses that despite that, he is grateful for Obi-wan’s teaching. This is what we saw in the previous scene (and what we see throughout this film): Obi-wan berates Anakin, and then Anakin apologises, because he must follow the Jedi way, and show deference to those senior to him within the Order.

This scene between Anakin and Padmé is one of my favourite in this film. It shows – very well, I think – someone who has been brought up in a martial, religious order, which has a hierarchy, and customs and traditions associated with it, and a moral code, but who is also exceptionally gifted, and who is constantly frustrated by the constraints of that religious order. This is someone who has been told – for the last ten years – that he is the Chosen One – that he is expected to be a great Jedi – but every time he actually uses his exceptional gifts, he is berated for it. He is constantly expected to be the Chosen One, but is frustrated because his teacher and the Jedi Order are preventing him from achieving it. This is why I really like this scene. I think Hayden Christensen performs it very well.

Around this point in the film we get several scenes set in the Jedi Temple. Getting to see more of the Jedi Temple is one of my favourite parts of this film. I really enjoy seeing the Jedi Order at its height. One of the frustrating things about the Disney films is that we never got to see any kind of new Jedi Order. I like just seeing inside the Jedi Temple – the cavernous hallways – it’s incredibly immersive.

I really like the scene in the Jedi Archives – with one of my favourite characters in the series: Jocasta Nu. Jocasta Nu is basically the Jedi’s head librarian. Obi-wan is in the Jedi Archives, trying to look up Kamino, and Jocasta Nu comes over to him, and says in a very fusty tone ‘Are you having a problem Master Kenobi?’. After Obi-wan shows her that Kamino isn’t showing up on the main computer, she insists that therefore Kamino does not exist, and then bustles off to help a young padawan. I really like this – I like the idea of a fusty librarian in the Jedi Order who’s not afraid to tell Jedi masters that they’re talking nonsense. I like that this reminds us that the Jedi Temple – as well as being, essentially, both a shrine and a military command centre – is also a school, and that lots of young Jedi spend their lives there. We see this even more as, after Jocasta Nu has finished dealing with Obi-wan, she goes off to help another young student. (And also, since Jocasta Nu is quite a lot older than Obi-wan, she might well have been a librarian even when Obi-wan was a young student or a padawan.)

We get another scene set in the Jedi Temple shortly after this – the scene where Yoda is teaching some very young students. I really like this scene too, despite the fact that it doesn’t make sense. Obi-wan has gone to Yoda to ask why the planet Kamino – which he trusts does exist – wouldn’t show up in the archives. Now, Obi-wan already knows the coordinates of where the planet’s supposed to be, and he knows that all the stars around the star system are being affected by gravity from something that’s there. If you know all of that, it doesn’t take much to realise that the data has been deleted, and that if you just go to those coordinates, you’ll find the planet. But seemingly, Obi-wan and Yoda need to ask some six-year-olds. This doesn’t really make sense. (In fairness, Yoda might have realised the answer, but just saw this as a teaching opportunity for his students, and Obi-wan might have had such strong conviction in the completeness of the Jedi archives that he just didn’t think it would be possible for anything to have been deleted.)

However, there are many things that I like about this scene. I like that we get to see Yoda teaching, and we see that Yoda – grandmaster of the Jedi Council, figurehead for a galactic religion (basically the equivalent of the Pope but for the religion of the Force), and quite possibly the most powerful Jedi of all time – still sometimes teaches the beginners. It really sells the idea that the Jedi Temple is a school, and that even Jedi like Yoda, who has Jedi Council meetings all the time, and often meets with important figures like the chancellor of the republic, are still involved in the day-to-day running of a school. Again, it’s incredibly immersive.

I also like how Yoda and Obi-wan speak to each other in this scene. Yoda essentially ‘performs’ for the students, pretending to admonish Obi-wan, as though he were another student, even though he’s another teacher to these six-year-olds. This reminds me a lot of what teachers would do in my secondary school – if one teacher came into your German class and had to ask something of your German teacher, the teacher coming in had to talk in German, as though they too were part of the class.

In this part of the film we’re cutting between scenes with Anakin and Padmé and scenes with Obi-wan – the film’s A and B plots – though one of the problems is that it’s difficult to tell which is the film’s A plot and which is the film’s B plot. These films are about Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side, so in a way, the plot with Anakin and Padmé should be the A plot, but the plot with Obi-wan seems to get far more screen-time, even though it’s a lot of action scenes and CGI. Again, I wonder if this is because George Lucas was too focused on the bigger picture of the events leading up to the clone wars.

We get a scene between Anakin and Padmé as they are travelling to Naboo. I really like this scene, because we get to learn more about the Jedi Order – what it’s core precepts are – and also what Anakin thinks of them. This is something that I would have liked to have seen more of in Star Wars – what is it really like to be a Jedi, to live in the temple? What’s it like growing up in that system? What are the rules? How do young Jedi respond to those rules? As it is, I like this scene, but it’s a bit short – it cuts off in a bit of an odd place. While we learn some interesting things about the Jedi in this scene, nothing happens apart from that. It should probably have been merged with another scene later or earlier, so that the whole thing could be a bit slower, and a bit more in-depth. As I say, one of the problems with the prequel films is that many scenes just aren’t complete.

We get some great world-building at this point in the film with Kamino – what looks like a planet that is entirely covered by ocean. The Kaminoans look distinct from the species’ we’ve seen so far, and they seem to have a distinct culture and customs as well. At the same time, in the other plot, the location that they chose for that part of Naboo – which is Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como in northern Italy – is just stunning. This one location choice is better than anything we got in the Disney films.

We also get some great music with Across The Stars – probably my favourite piece of music in the whole series. As a theme, it’s used for Anakin and Padmé’s romance, and it’s absolutely perfect for this. The piece is sweeping, epic, romantic, but also tragic, because this romance will lead to the fall of Anakin, and the rise of Palpatine. This one piece of music is better than everything produced by Disney.

It’s at this point in the film that we get the infamous line ‘I don’t like sand.’. People who despise the prequels seem to think that this line is proof that the prequels are the worst films ever made, but watching this film back, this line is completely forgettable. The reactions to this line are completely over-the-top. (And the same people seem to have no problem with ‘I saved you, dummy!’ from the Disney films, which is infinitely worse.)

Shortly after this, we get a scene between Anakin and Padmé where they’re just sitting in a meadow, talking about politics. What I like about this scene is that it shows Anakin’s naïveté when it comes to politics. The system he proposes as an alternative to the current one is completely un-thought-out – when Padmé questions him on it, he has no good answers to the questions. This is good because it shows that Anakin can be easily manipulated by Palpatine. Anakin is not savvy enough to realise that Palpatine might have ulterior motives for doing things, or might be deceptive. The idea that Palpatine is both secretly fuelling the separatist movement, and fighting it, in order to justify being given more power, is well beyond the level of political thinking that Anakin is doing.

This scene is one of several intended to show the developing romance between Anakin and Padmé. A lot of people criticise Christensen’s performances in these scenes, but I think if you watch closely, they’re very good. The problem with a lot of these scenes is that they are too short, and that prevents them from building any romantic tension. As an audience, we must see that this romance is going to happen before it does. This gives the storyline suspense, and this is what makes it engaging. I think doing this requires having longer, slower scenes, and having the right reaction shots at the right time – which, as I’ve said many times already, is one of the things that these films often get wrong.

One scene that I think Christensen performs exceptionally well is the scene between Anakin and Padmé at the Lars family home on Tatooine after Anakin has attacked the sand people. I don’t know how anyone could think that that scene is badly performed by Christensen. The reactions from Padmé are lacking – whether this is due to the way Portman chose to perform it or direction from Lucas is difficult to tell here. Padmé doesn’t seem at all shocked by what Anakin tells her, despite everything us knowing about the character suggesting that she should be.

But this scene really sells Anakin’s frustration. He wants to be a great Jedi, and he knows he can be, but killing the sand people puts that in jeopardy. There is a great expectation on him to be the Chosen One, but it’s all going wrong. He needs a mentor who is not going to berate him, in the way that we’ve seen Obi-wan do the entire film. Obi-wan might be very good at teaching Anakin the more practical aspects of being a Jedi, like using the Force and wielding a lightsaber, but he’s not very good at helping Anakin deal with attachment and impulsiveness. At this moment, Anakin needs a mentor who is not Obi-wan, but he doesn’t have access to anyone at that moment, and even when he gets back to Coruscant, there will be very few people – if anyone – within the Jedi Order who can help.

We then move into the final part of the film. The world-building of Geonosis is excellent. This planet looks different again to what we’ve seen before, with the distinct Geonosian architecture. The Geonosians are unlike anything we’ve seen before in appearance, and their language is distinct, and relates to their particular biology. We also get Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. As I’ve said before, many of the lines that Lucas wrote are a bit off – they’re a bit obvious and cliché – but even these lines Christopher Lee manages to pull off, showing just what a great actor can do even with a bad script. (Although sometimes a script can be so bad that even a great actor can’t perform it well.)

When Anakin and Padmé arrive on Geonosis we get an action sequence of them in the droid factory. This I think is the worst part of the film. This action sequence does nothing. It happens by accident, and Anakin and Padmé achieve nothing from it. On top of that, they could have avoided the machines just by stepping to the side at any point – the conveyor belts have panels on the side that you could stand on. Or even easier – just walk along the conveyor in the opposite direction to that which it’s moving in, then you won’t get hit by the various robotic arms. This sequence takes up A LOT of time considering it adds nothing to the story.

This is actually true of several sequences towards the end of the film. The fight above Geonosis between Obi-wan and Jango Fett is similarly pointless, and also quite long, though I do give the film points for showing us a different kind of space battle to what we’ve seen before – taking place in an asteroid field, and having Obi-wan and Jango actually use the asteroids to their advantage. That’s more than we got from any of the Disney films.

The sequence in the arena is also over-long. It starts with Obi-wan, Anakin, and Padmé being chained to the pillars to be executed. The Geonosians release the different beasts, which are swiftly killed. The Jedi turn up to take down Dooku, and there’s a big battle between them and the droids. Then Yoda turns up with the clones from Kamino. Most of this adds nothing to the story, and it takes up a lot of time. This sequence also has no tension. At no point does it really seem like Obi-wan, Anakin, or Padmé might die. It’s just not established that this situation is in any way all that dangerous.

A way to streamline this part of the film would have been to cut out the battle in space between Obi-wan and Jango Fett, and instead give them a battle in the arena. They’ve already had one fight in this film, of course, so it might be too much to have another, but Jango Fett goes down a bit too quickly.

One thing I did like about this sequence is that when Anakin and Padmé are brought into the arena and tied up, the first thing Obi-wan does is berate Anakin, and Anakin apologises to him, despite Anakin coming there to rescue him, reinforcing again just how completely unsuitable Obi-wan is as a mentor to Anakin at this point.

As I say, the action sequences in this part of the film are too long, and do nothing. It would have been far more valuable to give some of that time to the scenes between Anakin and Padmé, as their romance is a crucial part of this trilogy and the hexalogy as a whole. Many of their scenes are too short. One in particular is the scene just before Anakin and Padmé are taken into the arena, where Padmé finally says that she loves Anakin. This should have been a big, big moment in the film – if anything the moment that everyone comes away from the film talking about and remembering most vividly, as it is utterly crucial to Anakin’s storyline. As it is, the scene is too short, and there is no tension. In this scene, we should really have gotten a sense that these two are in danger – that they really are about to be executed. This could have been shown by Padmé’s fear. (Anakin would be unlikely to be fearful in this situation, as he will have been used to using the Force to get out of situations like this by this point.) The greater we sense Padmé’s fear, the bigger the impact that her saying she loves Anakin has – because we understand the importance of the sentiment at that moment. (The fact that this sentiment lacks impact in the film is also – and in large part – due to not enough focus being given to the romance storyline up to that point.)

As for the battle between Obi-wan, Anakin, and Dooku, I quite like it – it shows Anakin’s flaws very well. As for the battle between Yoda and Dooku, I know a lot of people don’t like it. I like the fact that we get to see just how agile Yoda can become when necessary, by channelling the Force into his movements, and Christopher Lee is brilliant as always, but the fight certainly seems to lack a distinct choreography. None of the camera angles used seem to be particularly satisfying angles to see the fight from. I think the first time we see Yoda use a lightsaber, we ought to be able to describe it with more adjectives than just ‘fast’.

So, to summarise, like the last film, many of the scenes in this film are incomplete. Many of the scenes are too short and lack the right reaction shots. There is an overemphasis on action – particularly towards the end of the film – and an underemphasis on the crucial plotline of this film, which is Anakin and Padmé’s romance. There is some excellent world-building, some sublime music, some brilliant actors, some great performances, and we really get to understand Anakin’s flaws, the frustration he has being the Chosen One, and how it is both the wrong guidance from Obi-wan, and the wrong guidance from the Jedi Order as a whole, that lead to his fall.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace – Review

One of the things that I like to do over Yule is watch films. I find it’s essential for making it seem like Yule. And I don’t watch films in the way that I usually do either – usually I do something else at the same time while watching a film, but over Yule I like to sit and watch films, and focus on them completely. That’s a much more relaxing way to watch a film, and relaxation is an essential part of Yule.

This year I decided that I would rewatch the six Star Wars films over Yule. I’ve been rewatching one a day – I’m now half-way through. This is actually the first time that I’ve gone back and rewatched the Star Wars films since the Disney films came out.

The three Disney films that were meant to follow on from Return of the Jedi – The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker – were shit. The Last Jedi is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen, and The Rise of Skywalker was about as bad. Before watching The Last Jedi, I didn’t realise that it was even possible for one film to destroy an entire series of films, but that’s what it did. (Incidentally, since that film came out, we’ve seen this sort of thing happen (at least) two more times with other sci. fi. and fantasy titans – Game of Thrones was completely annihilated by its final series (no-one talks about Game of Thrones anymore – that’s the extent to which that franchise was destroyed), and the most recent series of Doctor Who tried to retcon its entire history.) After seeing The Last Jedi, my interest in Star Wars completely dissipated. I only went to see The Rise of Skywalker out of a sense of morbid fascination – I wanted to watch the franchise completely collapse as a result of the stupid decisions that had been made. I did not see the Han Solo film; I have not watched any of The Mandalorian. The only thing that could bring my back to the franchise is if Disney were to officially announce that their sequel films are not canon, and will have no bearing on things they make in future.

However, now that there is some distance between the Disney films and the six Star Wars films, I find I can go back and watch them, and still enjoy them.

This time, I have started with Episode I. There is much debate as to the best order to watch the films in – I tend to vary it, sometimes starting with I, sometimes starting with IV. This time I have started with the prequels.

Now, there are some people who absolutely despise the prequel trilogy. I myself have always liked them. I am aware of their many flaws, of course – I do not pretend that they are perfect – but they do have many good aspects to them. For the entire time that I’ve heard people complain about the prequel films, however, I have found their complaints to be disproportionate. They seem to focus on aspects of the film that are highly inconsequential, and take up only a few seconds of screen-time – like the odd bad line. And this focus seems to be at the expense of the many excellent aspects of these films.

Coming back to these films after having now seen the Disney films, I am now struck even more how out-of-proportion some of the complaints about the prequel films are. Many of the people who abhor the prequels adore the Disney films – the number of people who I see claiming that The Last Jedi is a perfect film – not just good, but perfect – is astonishing.

So, I’ve decided that as I rewatch each of the Star Wars films, I’m going to write reviews of them. I don’t intend for these reviews to be exhaustive – I’m not going to go through every aspect of each film and analyse it. The aim is just to point out the main flaws in each film, and just how many good things each film has in it.

So, Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way.

One of the problems with this film is that many of the scenes are ‘incomplete’. Actually a better way of describing this is that in many parts of the film (many, but not all), there simply are no ‘scenes’. Many times the film cuts to one set of characters, in one location, who will say only one or two lines, and then it cuts to a different set of characters, in a different location, who will again only say one or two lines, and then it will cut again. There is no ‘scene’ – it’s just clips. It’s enough to understand the events of the story, but no more. This makes the film seem more like a synopsis than a story – just a list of things that happen and in what order. This is a problem that all three prequels have, and is probably a result of George Lucas focusing a little too much on the overall plan for the prequels. (That focus has paid off in other aspects of the films, however – the overall structure of the prequels (as a set of three films) is excellent.)

A related problem to this is that there are many missing reaction shots. It is often said that all good acting is reacting. One reaction we don’t get is Anakin’s reaction to learning that Qui-gon Jinn has died. This, I would think, is quite an important reaction. Qui-gon is the first Jedi that Anakin met, and the person who got him freed from slavery. Anakin expected Qui-gon to be his teacher, and Qui-gon would probably have been a better teacher for Anakin than Obi-wan. Anakin found Obi-wan frustrating – he thought he was overly critical and didn’t listen to his ideas. Qui-gon’s more laid-back style of instruction would probably have complemented Anakin’s over-confidence well. (Indeed, one could argue that Qui-gon was meant to find and teach Anakin, and if he had, Anakin might not have fallen to the dark side – making Qui-gon’s death a crucial moment in the series.) However, as an author, I have the luxury of being able to put whatever I want in my stories. Qui-gon’s death is quite late in the film, putting Anakin’s reaction in there might have made the pacing of the ending of the film a bit odd, which is why we only get Obi-wan’s reaction, which does not require a separate scene.

Another problem that Episode I has is that it doesn’t really have a main character. Many people might say that Anakin is the main character, but Anakin doesn’t appear for quite a while in the film – not until they go to Tatooine. Also, Anakin is only tangentially involved in the ending of the film. He does blow up the droid command ship, but he does this by accident – it’s not something he intends to do, and it is not a particularly important moment for Anakin. Qui-gon and Obi-wan are main characters, but neither is the main character. The same is true for Padmé. This is unlike the original trilogy, where even though Leia, Han, Obi-wan, Yoda, et alii, are all main characters, Luke is the main character.

Related to this is that we don’t really get a strong sense of what the characters personally want. We know that Qui-gon and Obi-wan are trying to fight back against the Trade Federation, but they are doing this because they have been told to by the Jedi Council, not because they personally want to. (That’s not to say that they don’t want to do it – it’s just that their main reason for doing it is shown to be because they are told to by the Council, rather than personal motivation.) This is one of the difficulties in writing about Jedi – especially ones that are part of a Jedi Order at its height. Jedi are supposed to be detached. They are not supposed to fiercely want to fight – they are not supposed to fear losing the fight. Their personal motivation isn’t supposed to come into it.

However, this problem of not having a clear sense of what characters want extends beyond Qui-gon and Obi-wan. It’s true of Padmé too. We know that she does want to fight back against the Trade Federation, but this comes across in the film as not much more than the duty of the monarch. We needed a stronger sense earlier on in the film that the Trade Federation is a great threat to Naboo, and that Padmé knows this, and resolves to fight back against it. (A lot of this stuff is just covered by throw-away dialogue in the film – it needs to be more than that.)

And it’s also true of Anakin. Anakin almost has the opposite problem, in that he wants too many things. He wants to do pod-racing, and he wants to win in the pod-race that Qui-gon enters him for in particular. He wants to travel the galaxy; he wants to become a Jedi; he wants to free the slaves. The focus for this film should have been on getting off Tatooine, and becoming a Jedi so that he can free his mother. That needed to be established earlier and more strongly, and then we would have understood why Anakin was doing anything he was doing.

So there are flaws with the film. The ones I’ve mentioned are not structural in the sense of the events that happen, but they are structural in the sense of what we know of the characters, when we know it, and whether it affects the subsequent events of the story.

One of the things that people often complain about with this film is the dialogue. A lot of people complain that the dialogue is wooden. They often focus on Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin, and complain that many of his lines weren’t delivered well. Personally, when it comes to very young actors, I always give them a pass. Jake Lloyd was about 9 or 10 years old when he played Anakin – it’s extremely unusual to find people of that age who are great at acting. (I’ve only ever seen one, and that’s Iain Armitage, who plays Sheldon Cooper in Young Sheldon – and he is such a good actor at such a young age that it’s actually quite unnerving.) As a society we should generally expect that if we put nine-year-olds in films, that there is a limit to what they’re going to be able to do, and that’s fine.

I will also say, though, that many of the odd lines that Anakin says in this film are due, I think, to the writing and the direction. For some of Anakin’s odd lines, it’s very obvious that what was written in the script was odd, and that Jake Lloyd was just doing it as written (which is what we should expect from a nine-year-old – I don’t think we expect them to improvise). Twice in the film Anakin says ‘Yipeee!’ – now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone ever actually say that in real life – people don’t say that in real life. That’s why it comes across as an odd line – it’s very unrealistic. But I suspect that was just what was written in the script, and Jake Lloyd just read it out.

For Anakin’s lines, George Lucas seems to veer between lines that are clichés of what children say, and lines that only older people would say. This is a problem that a lot of writers have – they forget how children talk. So I think some of these odd lines are due to George Lucas not having a strong sense of how people of different ages talk (which is a problem, I think, that film directors tend to have more often than novelists, because film directors tend to think more about camera shots and the composition of scenes, rather than words and styles of language).

Many of Padmé’s lines are often called wooden too. I think this is primarily a direction problem. It’s apparent that, when Padmé is speaking as a queen, Lucas wanted her to come across as forceful and somewhat remote. This works well in some scenes, but not others. I think in some of the scenes, Natalie Portman should have been directed to do the performance more casually. (Indeed, she may have done some takes like this, but these were not the ones that were chosen in the edit.)

More importantly, though, the bad lines in the film are few in number, and take up a very small amount of screen-time – the complaints about them are very disproportionate. Furthermore, while Jake Lloyd does do some lines not so well, he does do plenty of lines very well, and I think this is often overlooked.

Oh – I might as well get the Jar Jar stuff out of the way. A lot of people complain about Jar Jar – I have never understood this. I find Jar Jar a completely ignorable character – my focus is never on Jar Jar when I watch this film.

Something else people complain about is the pod-racing. A lot of people seem to just wish it weren’t in the film. The existence of pod-racing is, I think, very good world-building. We were introduced to speeders in the originals – speeders, of course, have some kind of anti-gravity mechanism in them, as they float off the ground. (Anti-gravity technology must be very cheap in the Star Wars universe.) Pod-racing is just what you get in answer to the question ‘What if we add some jet engines to a speeder?’. You would end up with something that could move extremely fast, because only air resistance is slowing it down, and that would naturally become a sport. This is good world-building – figuring out what the consequences of different kinds of technology are. If both anti-gravity speeders and jet engines exist in a universe, then pod-racing exists in that universe. And besides, is pod-racing really worse than all that stuff on Canto Bight in The Last Jedi? Absolutely not.

That’s some of the bad stuff; now for some of the good stuff. On the subject of world-building, this film is a masterpiece of world-building. There is more great world-building in the first ten minutes of this film than in everything produced by Disney since they bought the franchise.

We get several new species: the Neimoidians (the species that seem to run the Trade Federation), the Gungans, the Dug (Sebulba’s species), the Toydarians (Watto’s species), the Cereans (Ki-Adi-Mundi’s species), the Zabrak (Darth Maul’s species), and what seems like hundreds more. And what’s more, characters of these species aren’t just standing in the background, as is often the case in the Disney films – the characters of these species in the prequel films actually have lines.

The Gungans get even more world-building. The Gungan cities are completely unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before, with a unique and distinctive style of architecture. The Gungans also have a distinctive military, and technology which is unlike what other species and factions in Star Wars use.

The planet of Naboo gets a lot of world-building overall. The fact that the planet has no solid core, and is just water all the way down, is something we’ve not seen before in this series. The Nabooians also have a distinctive culture and their cities have a distinctive architecture.

In fact many planets get a lot of world-building in this film. Tatooine becomes more than just a moisture farm and Mos Eisley, with Mos Espa and its grand pod-racing arena. We get the entire planet of Coruscant – a planet that’s one giant city – Coruscant alone is more than we got from all of the Disney films. Coruscant has the senate building and the Jedi Temple, both of which have unique designs. In the Disney films, the most we see of anything like Coruscant is a few seconds of Hosnian Prime before it’s blown up.

We get new, and distinctive, ship designs, with the Nubian starships and Trade Federation’s control ships – both unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Star Wars. We even got new droid aesthetics – most of the droids in this film, and all of the adjacent technology that they use, are completely different to what we saw in the originals. The battle droids have a design that shows they were intended for mass production – they appear to be made of something like plastic – something that is cheap – because all these droids have to do is carry a weapon. They don’t have to last; they don’t have to endure; they just have to fight, and then be disposed of.

And the Jedi themselves have had a lot of development. We get a Jedi Order at its height, with Yoda as grandmaster of the Jedi Council. We get Mace Windu – a fan favourite. We get the very concept of padawans. We get the Jedi clothing and customs.

Some people don’t think that world-building is important, but it’s incredibly important. A rich, highly-developed, convincing world is essential for something to be immersive. When I watch a film, I want to be transported to another world, and I want to be convinced that it could be real. World-building is essential for that. The real world is complex and detailed. For a fictional world to be believable, it must be complex and detailed too.

But if you wanted a more simplistic argument for the importance of world-building, notice that it is the stories and franchises with the best world-building that have the strongest fanbases. Notice how there are entire YouTube channels dedicated to the worlds of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and Star Trek. These channels don’t just focus on the characters – they are able to make entire videos about seemingly minor aspects of these worlds, and people are interested in them. World-building matters.

We get some fantastic music in this film – most notably Duel of the Fates. Duel of the Fates alone makes the prequels far better than the Disney films. We also get some great actors in this film, and some excellent performances. Liam Neeson is outstanding as Qui-gon Jinn; Ewan McGregor is fantastic as Obi-wan Kenobi (though he doesn’t get too much to do); Samuel L. Jackson is outstanding as Mace Windu (although he didn’t get much to do either); Ray Park was brilliant as Darth Maul; and of course, Ian McDiarmid was sublime as Palpatine. There are even some minor characters who I think were done very well. Brian Blessed is perfect as Boss Nass, and I think Pernilla August plays Shmi Skywalker very well.

This film also sets up the trilogy, and the hexalogy, very well. Anakin is shown to be headstrong, and over-confident. He believes he can win the pod-race, despite never completing a race before. He deliberately stays in the Naboo starfighter, knowing that he can join in the fight while also technically following Qui-gon’s instructions. He also has a determination to change the world around him – he talks about dreaming of freeing the slaves – he wants to change the way the world works. And he also has a strong attachment to his mother. These traits all lead to his downfall.

This film also sets up Anakin’s interaction with the Jedi Order. When he first meets the Council to be tested, he finds them hostile, and he finds their questions to be irrelevant. Later, he is told by the Council that he will not be trained as a Jedi. This immediately sets up the Council as being an obstacle to Anakin – something that connects to Episode III, where he believes that the Council does not trust him, and wants to hold him back. He sees the Council as something that will prevent him from doing what he wants to do.

As I’ve said, this episode also shows how it might have been better if Qui-gon had been Anakin’s mentor. Obi-wan only just becomes a Jedi Knight at the end of the film, and as Qui-gon says, Obi-wan still has much to learn of the living force, and it’s Qui-gon’s understanding of the living force that gives him his laid-back way of doing things, which is probably what Anakin needed in a mentor. So this film sets up very well this idea of how even though Anakin was the chosen one, who would destroy the Sith, if the Jedi didn’t do it right – if they didn’t have the right person training him – then Anakin might not destroy the Sith in the way they expected. This is why Yoda says that Anakin’s future is clouded – it’s clouded partly because it’s dependent on whether Qui-gon lives or dies.

So those are some thoughts on this film. It has its problems, but it has an extraordinary number of great aspects to it – far more than all of the Disney films combined. As I said, this review isn’t exhaustive – there are many things that I’ve left out (which I might return to later). I think that all of the prequels might actually have been better as a television series, rather than films. There are many reactions and scenes that it would have been good to see in the films, and if all of them had been put it, they would probably have been too long as films. I’m not keen on the big time jump between episodes I and II, but that was necessary to fit everything into three films. But on the other hand, the idea of long-form television series’ with film-quality effects is something that didn’t really exist in the late 1990s and early 2000s – that’s a trend that’s appeared later as special effects have become easier and cheaper to do. It’s only nowadays that the boundary between film and television has ceased to exist. So I think these stories would only ever have been films.

New Book Release

The sequel to On The Subject Of Trolls is finally done – it’s finally here.

And the title of the book (which has been going by the codename of On The Subject Of Trolls 2 for the last few months) is simply: More On The Subject Of Trolls.

Like the last book, this book is a collection of short stories, and there are five stories again in this book (this will probably be the format for all of the books in the series). The five stories in this book are:

  • Clund the Obstructive
  • Kill The Golden Goose
  • The Company
  • Ceod the Beautiful
  • Ceon the Noble

Five trolls are named in this book – the three major trolls in the titles above, and two minor trolls: Obglud and Fut.

The book is available in both paperback and ebook form on Amazon via the following links:

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08CM6LDCS/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08CM6LDCS/
Amazon Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B08CM6LDCS/
Amazon Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B08CM6LDCS/

Star Trek Picard – Series 1, Episode 10 – It’s just shit

It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this review – I’ve been putting it off, because quite frankly I’m just glad that this series is over and I don’t want to spend any more time on it.

This final episode ultimately epitomised everything that was wrong with this series. I think all of the main things that have been bad about the previous episodes were in this one too. Because of that, there was no one main thing that was wrong with this episode, and so nothing that I can focus this review on – I’m just going to have to go through everything in order. So here we go.

At the start of the episode, Seven and Elnor are talking, and Seven says that the ex-Borg have no homes. This is odd, because the convention up until now is that de-assimilated Borg go back to the civilisation and planet that they were originally from. Sure that might not be an option for some people, as the Borg might have destroyed their home planet and the entire civilisation on it, but then there must be other ex-Borg from the same species, with whom they could start a colony – something which happens all the time in the Star Trek universe. Or they could even just join the Federation – there must be loads of Federation worlds that would have them. I get that the point of this series is that the Federation became closed off, but that was to Romulans, not just everyone.

Similarly, Seven says that she has no home. Err … Earth?

Narek makes his way into the Borg cube, where his sister greets him with a knife to the throat. Why? I get that these two are adversarial, but she knows it’s him doesn’t she? These two characters are weird – most of their conversations are quite incest-y. I can’t tell if they hate each other or want to fuck each other.

Shortly after that we hear a bit more of Narek’s backstory, from Narek himself. He’s rather pleased that he’s the one who found all the robots, and describes himself as ‘The Zhat Vash wash-out.’ … err … Can you leave the Zhat Vash? Surely they’d kill you – they seem like the sort of people who would kill you if you left. Also, has he left? The entire series he’s been doing stuff for the Zhat Vash? This show not only contradicts canon established by previous shows, but also things from earlier episodes!

We get a bit of chat between Picard and Soji at this point in the episode. They try to talk philosophy, but the writers aren’t capable of it, so a lot of what they say is just gibberish, but at one point Picard says ‘To say you have no choice is a failure of imagination.’ – no, this show is a failure of imagination.

Speaking of imagination, we get a weird scene between Rios and Raffi where they try to fix their ship. All of the dialogue in this scene is weird. Santiago Cabrera once again sounds like he’s reading his lines for the first time, Raffi is just insufferably patronising as she tries to get Rios to use the imagination tool thing to fix the ship. In this situation, Raffi obviously would have no more of an idea of how to use this tool than Rios would, but somehow she still tells him what to do with it.

This whole scene is completely unnecessary. What does it add to the episode or the series? Nothing. The imagination tool is just a deus ex machina tool. It can apparently do anything at any time with no constraints on materials or power. You don’t even have to learn how to use it. How does it work? We don’t know. Did the robots know? How did they make it? Did they make it? Where did they get it from? Seems like it would be good to have a lot of these things about. Are any of these questions going to be answered? No? Okay then.

Also, the imagination tool sends out these Borg-like tubes to fix things – is that a deliberate reference? If so, to what? How did these robots get a Borg device like that?

Throughout this episode we get a lot of very unsubtle foreshadowing that Picard is going to die and get put into this artificial body that they’ve been building. But … why are they even making that body in the first place? Apparently Soong and the other robots have been making this body, but … why? Who was it for? Was it for Soong? He was the only human there when they started building it, so it must be – does that mean he has to give up a new body so that Picard can have it?

Narek goes to the ship where Raffi and Rios are. He tries to get their attention, and when they ask what he wants, he says he’s ‘Trying to save the universe.’. No, just no. Fuck off with that. This is a problem that’s endemic to science fiction nowadays – people aren’t just trying to save a person, or a group of people, or a civilisation, or a planet, or a star system, or a galaxy – no, they’re trying to save the whole fucking universe. Stop. Putting. This. Line. In. Stuff. The story isn’t made more grand and epic by adding this line – you don’t raise the stakes, because no-one can really imagine this. This doesn’t increase the tension, it just makes the characters needlessly melodramatic. You know what actually raises the tension? Putting characters who we actually give a shit about in danger. Make us give a shit about the characters, and then put them in danger. Just having a character exposit the end of the universe does nothing.

It’s also completely inconsistent with what we’ve found out so far in this series. If this super-advanced AI does arrive, then they threaten, at most, all of our galaxy – there has been no mention of them going to other galaxies at all. So no, Narek, you are not saving the fucking universe.

I also noted down at this point in the episode that it’s very hard to believe that both Narek and Elnor are Romulans. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can just show the variety that there is to Romulan culture.

Narek’s telling of Ganmadan is fun, but the fact that the imagery here isn’t better shows that these aren’t very good writers. Also, this series would have had more tension as a whole if we’d heard this story far earlier in the series.

Narek says ‘And the fascinating thing about history is … it always repeats itself.’ No, Narek. No it doesn’t – it sometimes repeats itself. This is the kind of bullshit profound I expect on Twitter, not in Star Trek.

Jurati’s plan to help Picard escape seems to consist of just unlocking the door. They walk the six miles back to the ship pretty quickly.

By this point in the episode, I think most of the main characters know that genocide is imminent, but considering this they are not panicking nearly enough. Apparently they are all going to die in a few minutes, along with the people on a lot of other planets (it would seem), but no-one’s panicking – why is no-one panicking? This is partly why this episode has no tension, despite it being a ‘save the universe’ plot. The characters are about the same level of bothered by this as not being able to get a clue on a crossword.

We have some more bullshit profundity from Picard. He says ‘To be alive is a responsibility as well as a right.’ … Jesus fucking Christ. That might sound like the sort of thing that would go on a cheap inspirational poster that someone shares on Instagram, but this is actually quite a dark statement. The implication of this statement is that unless you, as a life form, do not carry out your “responsibilities”, then you don’t get to be alive. (This also shows why the word “responsibility” is vague, meaningless, and only really used as a way to get other people to do things regardless of how right or wrong that thing is, but that’s a rant for another blog post.)

Jurati says ‘Make it so.’ to Picard. How the hell does she know that he says that? This line is one of many that just serve as a shallow attempt at fan service by going ‘LOOK! SHE SAID THE THING! SHE SAID THE THING THAT HE NORMALLY SAYS! REMEMBER THAT? HE NORMALLY SAYS THAT! REMEMBER THAT! REMEMBER THAT BETTER SHOW THAT YOU COULD BE WATCHING!’ … You know what’s actually fan service? MaKiNg A gOoD fUcKiNg ShOw!

Down on the planet, Soong and the others are trying to stop all of the androids from doing whatever it is they’re doing. He goes up to Sutra and uses some device on her that knocks her out. He only uses this device ONCE. They then try and fight the other robots off by hand.

Back on the ship, Jurati says to Picard ‘Are you not answering to build suspense?’ – I suppose this is an attempt at a funny meta-line, but it doesn’t work. In order to break the fourth wall (or in this case, dent it), you first have to establish that there is a fourth wall by making your show immersive, which this show is not. Too often in this show the thoughts of the characters blur with the thoughts of the writers, which makes a meta-line like this just look like bad writing.

On the Borg cube, Seven has a gun pointing at Rizzo, and for some reason she doesn’t kill her straight away. There is no reason for this. Rizzo then somehow just pushes Seven’s gun aside, and they fight.

Throughout this entire episode, Commodore Sunglasses is the only Romulan we see on the Romulan ships – I guess they just didn’t have the money for more.

Picard and Jurati just fly around in front of the Romulans for a bit, not really doing anything.

Jurati also knows about the Picard manoeuvre. How? I get that it’s famous, but is it so famous that people outside of Starfleet know it? The only military manoeuvre that I know is the pincer manoeuvre, and that’s been around for millennia. This is just more desperate fan service.

Picard gives Soji a call on Zoom. Soji is not surprised to learn that Picard has left the village.

Up in space, Commodore Sunglasses says ‘Ready planetary sterilisation pattern number five.’ … apparently planetary sterilisation patterns one to four are not suitable in this case.

Back on the FaceTime call, why does Soji give a shit about Picard dying? When she first met him, she didn’t trust him. Have we ever actually been given a reason why she changed her mind? When did she change her mind? It all just happens because the plot requires it.

They activate the beacon, and it turns out it’s not just a beacon that sends a message, it opens the portal from Avengers Assemble. Jesus fucking Christ – check your fucking script! Make. Sure. You. Know. Whether. It’s. A. Portal. Or. A. Beacon. They. Are. Not. The. Same. Thing.

Also, the portal is now red when last time it was green.

The Starfleet ships arrive, and they look like they’ve just been copy-and-pasted in Blender.

We get about a minute of back-and-forth between Riker and Commodore Sunglasses, and for a few brief moments, the show actually feels like Star Trek. Jonathan Frakes is still great. If we had a whole series with him as a captain of a star ship, it could be amazing (though, without any of this Discovery / Picard style writing – I don’t want another classic character to be ruined).

Picard’s brain problem spontaneously flares up again, and honestly it has better dramatic timing than most of the actors.

Very slowly, the super-beings are making their way through the portal, and apparently they’re just tentacles – not what I was expecting.

They manage to close the portal again, and the super-beings just decide to go back into it. Apparently even though they’ve been summoned, ostensibly to rescue the androids down on the planet, they decide that since the portal has closed they must not need rescuing.

Picard dies, and the rest of the characters just mope around for a bit. Seven of Nine says that she intended to never again ‘kill somebody just because it’s what they deserve’. What a weird thing to aim for.

Okay, this next one’s harsh – maybe too harsh, even for me – but Evan Evagora is not an experienced enough actor to pull off that short scene with him and Raffi. Now, I like Evan Evagora – he’s got some great pictures on Instagram – but he doesn’t have a lot of acting credits – only two before Star Trek Picard. Now this alone isn’t a bad thing – in fact I quite like that the show was willing to give out some parts to less-experienced actors – it helps them to get going in the acting world. This short scene is very cringe-worthy, and I actually blame the directors for this, because if you as a director get an actor to do something, and it’s obvious that they can’t really perform that way yet, do the scene differently.

Anyway, we then learn that Data has actually been alive all this time, inside a simulation, for about twenty years. Why did they leave him there? They’ve been building all of these other android bodies, why not make one for Data?

Also, considering how good Brent Spiner is at playing Data, they should have had a lot more of him in this series.

Data says he wants to die again, and he says ‘Mortality gives meaning to human life.’ No, no it doesn’t. This line kind of highlights what’s wrong with this show – Picard is supposed to be a philosophical character, and Star Trek is supposed to be a philosophical show, but you can’t have that unless the people writing it are very intelligent.

Anyway, they transfer Picard’s memories into a new body – I’m not sure what kind of body this is – the show doesn’t seem to understand that a biological android is just a fucking human, but it seems to want to think that somehow they’re still robots – I don’t know – it doesn’t make sense. But something that other critics have said is that this new Picard isn’t Picard – the real Picard died when his body died. And this is an important point: is a copy a continuation? If this were classic Star Trek, this idea would have been explored, but since it’s not classic Star Trek, it isn’t.

The characters are fine with it anyway – they all seem to consider this new body with Picard’s memories to be Picard. I did wonder though – what did they do with the old body? Did they just dump it in the trash? We don’t see the other body at any point – itself an odd choice for the show to make. Perhaps they just wanted to ignore the philosophical implications of all of this.

In the end, Picard has no brain problem, and Data is still dead, so basically nothing has changed since the start of the series. (Because this series chose to make Picard’s brain problem into a thing – they could have just ignored it any no-one would have noticed.)

For about half a second just before the final shot of the series, there’s a brief lesbian moment between Seven and Raffi. This really pissed me off. It’s so fucking weak. You don’t get representation points for lesbians holding hands – it’s not 19-fucking-95 – it’s 2020. Two decades ago you got points for that, but not now. If you want credit for having lesbians in your show, put them front and centre – make the main two characters lesbians, THEN you get credit for it. Either put them front and centre or don’t bother at all. Ambiguous sentences and people in the background holding hands is just fucking weak.

And then at the end, the ‘gang’ is about to go off on some other adventure. It’s not obvious why they decide to do this. But more importantly, what’s actually going to happen to all of those androids down on the planet? They can’t just be left there – the Romulans would just come back. In the end, we have no idea what happens to the androids, which was the entire point of this story.

It’s just astonishing how much of this episode made no sense – not just in terms of the wider context of the Star Trek canon, but in terms of things this show said earlier in the series. There is no consistency; there is no coherence.

I was optimistic about this series – I was optimistic that it wouldn’t have the same problems that Discovery had. But while it’s not quite as bad as Discovery, it’s obvious from this series that the showrunners have a critical error in their understanding of what Star Trek is supposed to be, and a complete inability to do world-building, separate their thoughts from the thoughts of the characters they are writing, understand character motivations, write natural dialogue, build suspense, or have any philosophical ideas that are distinguishable from what Inspirobot chucks out.

The acting in this show is sometimes good, sometimes repulsive. The CGI is mostly alright, with the occasional copy-and-paste. The music is forgettable, but inoffensive. But the writing is an absolute clusterfuck. This show is a complete failure of writing, and the only value it has is as an example of what not to do.

I gave Star Trek Discovery a second chance, and watched the second season. Star Trek Picard is getting no second chance – that’s it, this show is dead. In fact, after three awful series’ of television, I’m tuning out of modern Trek. There is just no point watching it, and until there is a complete change of writing philosophy I’m not going to watch any more modern Trek. Other shows deserve more of a chance; modern Trek goes to the back of the line.