Friday, May 28, 2010

Prejudice is bad, if quick

I've a colleague who watched all of The Wire, every season, every episode, because she hoped she'd get to like it. I'm a hard, hard man: I want everything to be fantastic but if episode 1 doesn't hold me in some way, in any way, I'm off. And I think I'm wrong: this is the prejudice of the title, the rather less socially significant but since we're writers who want our work to keep people's attention, still important prejudice.

Follow. Back in the mid-1990s I saw the movie Stargate and didn't happen to like it. Consequently I saw only the odd channel-hopping sliver of its TV follow-up, Stargate: SG-1. Didn't watch a single frame of that show's follow up, Stargate Atlantis. Until checking this out before talking to you, I had never even heard of Stargate Infinity.

But now I'd probably call myself a fan, certainly an addict, of the latest series, Stargate Universe. That's happy for me. Only, as well as just enjoying the drama, I am agog at the differences between this and previous series: differences that are led by how the new show is written. I'm so agog that I've gone nipping back into the other Stargates, sampling this, trying that, running away again from the film. Some of it can be exciting, some of it can be funny and I'm not knocking the shows at all, I'm just saying they're not my kind of drama.

All the previous Stargate shows were science fiction adventure tales about fairly square-jawed hero types who usually spoke in one-liners when they weren't reciting technobabble. They were fast-paced shows, high-stakes, high explosions, big, epic, aliens, wooo, all of that.

Stargate Universe, on the other hand, is serious, it's about very real people under pressure and their problems are not resolved by the end of the hour, they go on week to week, getting worse week to week. This is my cup of tea. I enjoy it so much, I look forward to it so much each week that I want to thank Daniel Hardy: he listens and has contributed to the UK DVD Review podcast I do and it was solely on his recommendation that I gave this new show a go.

It's entirely my own fault that I've gone poking about the other series.

What I've found is that these other Stargate series are made by the same company, they share broadly the same premise in that they have these Stargate things. They share storylines, they share some characters and actors. And they are written by much the same people.

So have a look and see if you're as startled by the differences as I am.

First up, Stargate SG-1. Nip along to 3'50 in this and watch a typical "Gentlemen, there is a crack in the world" type of sci-fi scene. It's also a key scene for the Hero, Richard Dean Anderson as Jack O'Neill and Amanda Tapping as Sam Carter. I watched through my hand.

Next, the opening to the pilot episode of Stargate Universe.

I'l bet money your first thought is the money. Stargate Universe looks much more expensive. I believe it is, too. I worry that your thought after that is how slow the beginning is. Watching it with you now on YouTube with the wee little screen, it doesn't have the strong, arresting, intriguing, feature-film-like feel at first but is that true or is it just that I've seen it before? Not knowing what's going on, I think you're curious and as the show zooms in on the ship and through its broken corridors, maybe it builds some nice tension. It did with me on my telly.

I admire the opening for how completely still it is and then how completely the quietness is punctured by the arrival of that first character, Lt. Scott. And then the mayhem. So quickly you go from this utter stillness to a very human fear and panic.

I'm also going to bet money that you are more tempted to carry on watching Stargate Universe than you are Stargate SG-1, just based on these excerpts. So why not? The show is on Sky1 on Tuesday nights in the UK, it's on Syfy in the US on Fridays - though in both cases it's about to reach the end of its first season. I'd recommend starting at the beginning which I'm sure will loop around again on Sky and Syfy but is out on DVD shortly and on iTunes now.

I recommend it so thoroughly that I'm surprised I've forgotten to mention Robert Carlyle stars in it. I recommend it so thoroughly despite having learnt that every single atom of the show that I enjoy this much is detested by fans of the old SG-1 series.

There are people who long for this series to be cancelled and their favourite SG-1 to be revived. Fortunately, as well as being a bit unlikely anyway, these vocal voices appear to belong to an intense but small group of fans who need to let go.

Or to go live in what I've been dying all day to call a stargated community.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Mac vs PC: can we end this once and for all?

If you buy a PC, you’ve just bought a PC. If you buy a Mac, somehow you’re a Machead, a cultist, an Apple fanboy or girl, you’ve joined a religion, you worship Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive, you’ve been fooled by the hype, you’re trying to be cool, you think shiny is good, the list goes on.

You hear much the same degree of jeering between football fans but at least with that there are fans on both sides. Who’s actually fan of Windows PCs? But okay, if Apple is a religion, it’s the Church of the One That Works.

If Microsoft comes out with something, I’ll probably hear about it at some point. I don’t follow many of the techie news sites I used to when I worked in computers but I’ll hear eventually. Mostly because it takes so long: a pretty standard spiel from Microsoft is that our new product will kill Apple/Google/Everybody as soon as it’s launched in three to four years. And it’s cheaper too, so there. Will be cheaper.

There was a nice-looking tablet computer they did this about: if you saw the articles, you quite fancied this. It was a wee way off, they said, and now the other day they cancelled it entirely.

In comparison, Apple loves making big announcements about fancy technology and ending with the words “Available today”. I’m not sure whether you’d call that smug or gleeful, but I think they earn whichever it is. The famous Apple secrecy up to the launch of a product has some unpleasant sides but ultimately where so many firms talk about what they’re going to do, Apple tends to just do it first.

Seriously first, too. They nicked the idea for a graphical computer back when there used to be any other sort. Microsoft nicked it from the same place an hour later. But where Apple took Xerox PARC’s idea and made it commercially practical, commercially available, Microsoft Windows has been copying the Mac for nearly thirty years and it’s still not there.

You have a mouse. You wouldn’t have if Apple hadn’t done it first, or at least if someone hadn’t, because Microsoft came late to mice. If you’ve got a laptop, it has the keyboard pushed to the back so you can type comfortably and it’s got a slick touchpad. Because of Apple. I was at the UK launch of their first PowerBook with that touchpad and they crowed about how they had patented it.

Apple patents are plainly rubbish, but there you go.

When Apple does come out with something new, I hear about it much, much faster because these days I’m looking. I’ve got a couple of Mac sites on my iPhone’s newsreader and I’ll read them not through fervour, not because they happen to update while I’m bowing toward Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino.

I read them because of Apple’s track record and how the firm thinks things through.

One example. I hope this has changed in Windows 7 but it lasted for the first twenty years of Windows so it’s a fair illustration of how the technology doesn’t matter, it’s the people behind it. Copy some documents to a floppy disk, if you can find a floppy disk.

Windows gives you a nice, pretty graphic of paper airplanes flying between an icon of your hard disk and an icon of your floppy one. Until suddenly the floppy is full and it panics. “Error!” it screams. I can’t remember the unmemorably techie error message but its meaning is very clear: it’s your fault. You’ve got it wrong, not Windows.

Do the same thing on a Mac and it looks first. Tells you there’s not going to be enough room on the floppy.

That’s it, it’s just sayin’.

Microsoft did the pretty icon fine, it just thinks that pretty is enough. Well, sort of. Windows XP has a very Fisher Price kind of look but Windows 7 is prettier. It’s just that pretty is as pretty does, I think: Apple products have a shine to them at least in very great part because they work and work so well. Before the iPhone, no phone looked anything like it. Since the iPhone, no phone has been released that hasn’t tried to copy it. That’s design, that’s thinking brilliantly.

That’s not trying to make a long list of features, that’s trying to make the things useful.

Not long ago I recommended that a friend did not switch to Macs because I felt he was so wedded to Windows and had so many applications that changing was a giant deal. He changed anyway. I’m very persuasive. And for weeks afterwards he’d phone me up laughing. Because he’d buy some new software, new hardware, something, and he’d read out the six pages of instructions for how you install them under Windows before delivering the punchline. For Mac, the instructions were always “Plug it in.” The End.

I used to actually like computers. I enjoyed fiddling, I even had a fair enough career in computer magazines though I always felt I was a magazine guy more than I was a computing one. And all the friends I still have from there are nodding now. Possibly also nodding off, but.

Today all I want is to work on a machine that works. Someone asked me recently how I could possibly enjoy computers so much. I had just repaired a ridiculous problem with his Windows Vista laptop but I swear we stared at each other as if across a gulf. I don’t like computers, I like that I can talk to you like this, I love that I can do my work wherever I am in the world, I adore that right now I’ve got music playing, that in a short while my Mac will record the Afternoon Play so I can listen in the car later. That BBC News channel is open on my right. That Twitter is updating in front of me. That the film I’m buying off iTunes will be ready to watch in a second or two.

And obviously I write. But for every advantage this Mac gives me for writing, it does offer a thousand distractions.

It’s just that I’m not distracted struggling to find a DLL, whatever in the hell that is, I’m not interrupted by WARNING! VIRUS! YOUR FAULT! messages. And when my disk is full, I know I’ve just been talking too much.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why do women act?

Easy one first: name a great woman actor. Got one? Got a hundred? It's a doddle. Straight off the top of my head, I immensely admire Jodie Foster, Judi Dench, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Emily Mortimer, Allison Janney, Helen Hunt, Alison Pill, if I say any more I'll itch to sort them into alphabetical order. And anyway, you've got your own list.

But now name a great role for a woman. You can do it, each of these women has had a least one tremendous role or I wouldn't know to admire them, wouldn't know they are as talented as they are.

Yet most of the time the woman's role is as nothing more than being the unattainable object for the hero, who attains her by the end anyway. For instance, I just watched Se7en for a thriller-writing course run by Script in the West Midlands and, watching it as a writer, I kept wondering why Gwyneth Paltrow took the part she did. It's a great film and the parts for the leads, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are tremendous, but Paltrow is a big name and it's a tiny part.

How did Kim Basinger get an Oscar for LA Confidential? I'm not saying she was poor, but what did she actually have to do in the film? How did Judi Dench get an Oscar for thirty seconds of screen time in Shakespeare in Love?

Those two films are exceptions for me because both parts were fine, they just didn't have much to them. Whereas the majority of time, I find that as a viewer, I am prone to slapping my forehead. Particularly when the hero says he's going "to get the girl". I can't help it: I immediately hear him saying that today he's got to pick up the laundry, wash the car, get to the post office before 3pm and, oh, yes, collect the girl. Whoever she is in the story, she's not a person, she's not a character, she's a UPS parcel.

Yes, I'm pro-feminist. I think it's embarrassing that there's only one woman in the new British Government cabinet. It's bad that I can't bear her, but embarrassing too. But I don't slap my forehead from some ideological idea, I do it because this accepted norm of the woman as "the girl" to get is crippling to drama.

Follow. The hero falls for a "perfect" woman. Already she's boring me, but still, let's go with it. The hero is someone this woman would never look at and yet without him actually changing into someone worth being glanced over, she is required to change her mind by the end of the story. Usually this involves the hero doing something for 90 minutes when she isn't even in the room. We know nothing about her, we care nothing about her, she isn't actually anything: certainly not a character of any low number of dimensions. There's a good chance she's blonde. I wouldn't count on her wearing much in the way of a costume.

But if you don't care about this unattainable object that the hero is striving to attain, it's hard to keep your mind on the hero's striving. Hard to get behind a hero who's so shallow that this empty life-size poster of a woman is his ultimate goal.

So a will-they/won't-they tale rapidly becomes, for me, a will-he/why-would-she story. Then it's a who-is-she story, penultimately a who-is-he tale, then a what's-on-the-other-side-kind-of-drama.

There's always something on the other side. I'm just grumbling at you today because so much of it appears to be like this and I can't understand how all drama, all writers, all producers aren't grabbing talent. I actually can't understand why there are so many talented women actors when this is what's on offer for them.

Except, of course, when everything works. I only recently saw Emily Mortimer and Gerard Butler in Dear Frankie: a beautiful gem of a film by Andrea Gibb with real women, real men, real characters.

I can well see why women would want to act in drama like that. Because I want to write drama like that.