Jan 212016
  January 21, 2016

Writer’s Voice and Eugie Foster

I came across a Youtube video, part of a series on literature called Stripped Cover Lit, where the subject was the writer’s voice. They made a list of six great short stories that demonstrated the author’s voice. The six:

Donald BarthelmeThe Baby
Ernest HemingwayHills Like White Elephants
William FaulknerThat Evening Sun
F. Scott FitzgeraldBernice Bobs Her Hair
Lorrie MooreHow to Become a Writer
Eugie FosterWhen it Ends, He Catches Her

I have to admit never being a big fan of Fitzgerald, but still, I rather like Eugie being grouped with these, particularly Hemingway and Faulkner.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations (well, online conversations) of late connected to this. I hadn’t used the term “writer’s voice,” but I should have, as it is vastly important when speaking of the art of writing, and of things that have popped up recently in the F&SF community.

Most authors do not have a voice. They write words, but there is nothing that marks those words from the words of others. If an author dies, more often than not, another author could take over, finishing the work without anyone the wiser. There is nothing distinct. There is nothing vital. There are just words, stuck together in sentences. Style, subject, perspective—it’s all the same. If you happen to like that style, that subject, and that perspective, that’s good for you as you have plenty to read. But no story matters more than another. No book matters more. No author matters more. They are all replaceable.

This was a matter of pride for Jim Baen. Everything the same. Everything what you are looking for. Everything replaceable. That makes sense as a marketing strategy, with words being nothing but a commodity. It doesn’t work so well with art. Words that matter, that will be remembered—those cannot be just more of the same. It was one of (my many) complaints with the suggestions of the Sad Puppies. Most of the works had no voice, or if you prefer, all had the same voice with ten thousand other stories. Most could have been written by the same person, perhaps at different points in his career to account for improvement in skill. All the same.

This is why I give more leeway to John C. Wright than others. Because he has a voice. If I plopped down a pile of recent stories, particularly Pup stories, a disconnected reader would be able to pick out two of Wright’s stories, but as for the others, there would be no way to match them. They are all the same. Love or hate Mr. Wright, at least he exists. And it is better to hate a work of art than be bored by it, or to forget it.

This is not purely a Puppy matter. I bring them up because they revel in it, and because they want to give it awards. But this is the norm. Most stories I read lack a voice. I’ve been catching up a bit with my reading and most of what I find feels like everything else I’ve already found. When I find something that truly speaks, I rejoice in that. And I’ve found a few. And those will be the ones I’ll remember and the only ones with a chance of being remembered by the larger community.

Poe had a voice. Lovecraft had a voice. Vonnegut and Bradbury and Lee each had a voice. So did Shakespeare and Austen and Twain and Chekhov if we want to broaden our horizons a bit.

And Eugie had a voice. She actually had two different ones. Her Asian fairytales had a different style, a different perspective, then the likes of Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest, Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast, When it Ends, He Catches Her, and The Art of Victory (yes, that last one you haven’t seen yet, and you’ll love it), though there was a relationship between those voices. Her works were not like so many others. Another author could not just pick up where she stopped. Her voice is not interchangeable with those of others. I can’t say if her stories will be remembered. All the great voices, or merely the distinct ones, are not automatically immortal. The world isn’t fair that way. But they might be.

As for all those stories that are the same, from authors who have no voice, they will fade from memory.

This year I hope to see ones worth remembering, ones whose authors have their own voice, who are not replaceable, to receive the cheers and accolades. It’s a hope, but the world isn’t merit-based either, so I can only hope. I hope more for great writers, distinct writers, with their own individual voices, to rise up and create things that speak to the soul.

For now, I’ll just be amused at grouping Eugie with Hemingway. I wonder what she’d have said to that.

Jan 202016
  January 20, 2016

I was speaking to a Chinese woman whose English was only so-so. I’d just met her and knew her only for the time I was waiting and waiting and waiting some more for a meeting that didn’t happen—long enough for her to ask if I was married and thus, for my widower status to pop up.

And her suggestion: Go to Hong Kong and find a Chinese girl.

I found that both interesting and unexpected, particularly from someone I had known so briefly. Now this did not upset me. In fact, it was at least theoretically helpful advice. It certainly beats all the “Grieve in your own time and then move on” and “Eugie would have wanted you to be happy” and “You just have to move forward” advice that’s been tossed my way. After all, none of that, none of what most people say is of any use. I have no interest in moving on, only I know what Eugie would have wanted, and the only people who feel the need to move forward are the ones who have never thought about what people actually need to do with their lives—which is, pretty much nothing besides die (taxes are optional, though then either death or jail or running away might come into play).

And what this woman said would help, again, theoretically. I do believe in being saved by new love. It has happened to me. For anyone not up to date on my life, Eugie was my second wife. Katie, my first, died when we were both young. It left me without purpose in life—empty. Then I found Eugie, and she gave me purpose. She gave me a reason for existence.

A lot of people think enjoying yourself is a reason. I’ve nothing against people sticking around simply to enjoy themselves, but taking it as THE reason is a recent philosophy and nothing pins it as the truth of the universe. A bit of reading through your local library’s philosophy section, or religion section, will find a good many other views on what life is all about. For most of recorded history, “fun” was not the meaning of life. I’m a big fan of fun and pleasure and generally enjoying myself, but also find it a bit empty. I want more.

So, I find the woman’s view that I need to get another girl to make my life worth having to be perfectly reasonable. It is an answer. The thing is, I haven’t asked the question, but it is the only actual answer anyone has suggested to me.

Suggesting that I go to Hong Kong to find a girl is a bit more peculiar, but not massively. She was from Hong Kong, and people tend to think people from where they are from are the best people. Plus, I’d said I’d been to Hong Kong, which brought up Eugie’s race, so perhaps she thought I had a thing for Chinese girls.

Again, I’ve no problem with that. Now-a-days it seems frowned upon to have a “type,” but that is another very recent social switch and I bet most people still do, they just won’t admit it. So she may have assumed my type is Chinese girls—not really accurate, but I can see where she was coming from (though I’m betting the “my people are the best” was more the point).

To me, all that is fine: The personal advice to a near stranger and the idea of a Chinese girl being the one to get. Sure. Where it doesn’t work for me is in the underlying nature of it all, which is, that I would try to find reason, or meaning, or a future in life. People do that. They do it all the time. I don’t think most do it with thought. They take it for granted that you must go on, so you must find meaning and that’s that.

I was never good with assumptions. I don’t take it for granted that I must exist, or I must be happy, or that life must have meaning. So I’m not looking for those things. I’m not asking the question, so her answer, while conceptually useful, is not so in practice. I also don’t think the “going to Hong Kong” part is on the money, but your mileage may vary.

I think salvation in love is a fine thing. I think it is pretty much the only thing (I do not think much of the “save yourself” crowd or any of the so popular life roads that all focus on “ME”). And if it ran into me, I wouldn’t avoid it. But I cannot imagine going out looking for it. Salvation will come. Or it won’t (I’ve got my money on the second.) But either way, I’m not going to be running around, searching. That works, as I’m not sure where I put my passport.

Jan 142016
  January 14, 2016

So Alan Rickman has died. I loved him in Die Hard (didn’t everyone), and in many other films. I saw him first in 1978’s BBC production of Romeo and Juliette. It is still my favorite recorded version (beaten only a stage version I saw around 10 years ago).

And David Bowie died the other day. A mover and shaker in the music world, he changed things in so many ways. When I was in junior high, it was deeply uncool to like Bowie. The few who did so openly were not teased for it, but avoided; people were afraid of them. I didn’t know Bowie’s music very well, but as a controversial child, I was friendly with one of the girls who frightened others, and she introduced me to Ziggy. Not too many years later Bowie was in white jackets and the ultimate in cool, but I never liked his “later” work. But I did listen to Ziggy and the Spiders.

And everyone is crying about the deaths, or singing the two men’s praises. I’ve mixed feelings on it. I cannot get upset at death now. Eugie beat them to it, and did it much earlier, so everyone else is now just copying, and doing so often after a good deal more life.

I see laments that it (each of these deaths) is a tragedy, from people who have evidently had exceptionally easy lives, or do not know the meaning of words. It is a horrible, gut wrenching, world-shattering thing—but not for those saying it. For Iman and Rima Horton, and for others who knew them and loved them, it is terrible beyond words. I do not attempt to feel for them. Humans are poor at sharing grief, or understanding it, but I acknowledge it.

But this isn’t a tragedy for you. Someone you don’t know has died, and they won’t make any more art. Unfortunate. But if that is a tragedy for you, I marvel at your golden life. That isn’t even something to sigh wistfully about.

Among all the misplaced moaning, there is a something of more value: celebration. Rickman and Bowie, and Eugie before them, didn’t go gently into that good night. They left behind great works. While all those who post pictures on the Internet have no connection, no blood to drain, they do have those great works. Loving and mourning and celebrating the individuals is for others. But celebrating, that is for you. So stop inappropriate cries, or pointless introspection of your own mortality (you’re mortal—if you didn’t come to grips with that when you were 18, give it up), and instead listen to Major Tom’s lyrical tale, or watch Hans Gruber play terrorist, or read about a woman who can hear a talking skunk. Then laugh, or cry, or yell, or sing, not to the people you didn’t know, but to the great things they left us. Celebrate their works.

That’s what you can do.

Jan 092016
  January 9, 2016

This is a ranking of modern Doctor Who, from 2005 (or NEW WHO). I’ll get around do ranking the seasons of Classic Who, but that’s for a different post. I’m looking at the seasons as a whole, so while that mostly means, “were the episodes in it better or worse?”, the structure of the season as a whole and any season long arcs are also factors. I am counting 14 seasons. So FLUX counts as a season, and the four Specials after season 4 also count as a season. I normally group any other specials with the nearest season, with the exception of two during Matt Smith’s time since, when I evaluated the nearest seasons, the BBC insisted that those were separate, and the fandom agreed, so I’ve just ignored 2 eps.

And for more info on which episodes brought a season up or pulled it down, check out my ranking of every modern Doctor Who episode:

The Lowest 3rd
The Middle 3rd
The Top 3rd

Now, starting in last place:



#14 Season 13 (FLUX)

doctor-who-flux2Oh dear god, does Chibnall have no concept of story structure? FLUX is a single adventure split among 6 episodes. Two of those, War of the Sontarans and Village of the Angels, feel like stand alone eps that were rewritten to fit the longer work, but the other four eps cannot stand alone. And as a single, season long story, it is a mess. OK, the good first. The cinematography is very good, probably the best Doctor Who has ever been shot. And Yaz is much more of a character now, even with a bit of agency and less petulant. And while new companion Dan doesn’t do much, he is amiable and a pleasant addition. Semi-companion Jericho is also reasonably well developed. And I like the makeup and performance of the two villains, Swarm and Azure. And that’s it. The rest is junk.

OK, what went wrong: Two many story threads, many left dangling or missing parts. Far too many characters. Extra villains who are irrelevant and underdeveloped (Sontarans, Daleks, Cybermen, The Grand Serpent). Extra allies who were irrelevant and underdeveloped (Vinder, Bel, Kate). No emotions on events that deserve big emotions (trillions upon trillions have died and the universe is in ruins and no one shows any sign of caring). Lots of emotion shown when there’s no explanation of why they deserve any concern (why does the Doctor care about her past?). Vague motivations (what exactly did the Doctor do that so upset The Division? Bringing “hope” is not an answer). Really distracting concepts of the size of the universe (apparently it is very small) and of physics (matter “slows” antimatter…). Everything ended way to quickly.

Word is that the season was supposed to be 10 episodes long and got cut. OK, then there needed to be some re-writes before they started filming that removed things that didn’t matter to the story so that important things still had room.

Best “individual” ep: Village of the Angels
Worst “individual” ep: The Vanquishers


#13 Season 11

In comes a new Doctor and a new showrunner, creating a season of consistency. Unfortunately, it’s consistently not very good. It doesn’t have the worst episode, but it is close, and it never shines. A majority of the eps sit in the middle of the lower third of all modern Who. It’s easy to blame the generally drab writing, but the problem is larger, with the structure of the show. Perhaps three companions were too many. None of them develop personalities, or enough agency to do anything other than meekly obey The Doctor. And none of them have any kind of relationship with The Doctor. They are non-entities that hardly react, and when two of them are motivated by a recent death, not reacting is a huge problem. This is one of the worst depictions of widowhood I’ve ever seen.

Jodie Whittaker’s general take on The Doctor has potential, but that consistency becomes a problem again. She doesn’t change. Not only does she lack an arc (most Doctors don’t have one), she doesn’t behave any differently in different situations. She’s always the same. She’s a little breathless and rattles off exposition with a single tone. The playful childlike Doctor could work, but she needs to respond to her environment.

Chris Chibnall brings with him a dark, ugly aesthetic. He’s trying to make the show look more cinematic, but he lacks the skill and the money. The blocking is flat, the lighting is dim, and the colors are off. Oddly, to go with that, he makes the show more juvenile, with non-stop messaging to kids to “be the best you can be” and “gosh, you can overcome your disadvantages.” It’s both off-putting and twee.

Best ep: Demons of the Punjab
Worst ep: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos


#11 Season 12

It’s like Season 11, with all its flaws, but a little better. Not much, but a little. The Doctor is still too unchanging, the companions are still drab and have no relationship with The Doctor (but do become petulant once, which is not an improvement), the production is still weak, and the message is still only suited to pre-teens, but individual eps are a step up. The big change was more references to older seasons, with a lot of returning villains, which isn’t in itself good, but the writers seemed to have a better idea of what to do with those.

There were multiple big reveals, that really didn’t mean much. The Doctor is the Timeless Child… So? How does that effect anything? Why would that effect anything? Big emotional arcs need to be emotional. This one isn’t, and, based on 50 years of the show, shouldn’t be. This is the one time the Doctor is emotional, but we’re given no reason why she’s emotional. Considering how often the Doctor has tossed off past personalities (and sometimes shown distain for past selves), why is this past important? The show needs to show us, not just assume that it is.

Best ep: The Haunting of Villa Diodati
Worst ep: Revolution of the Daleks


#12 Season 10

This was the season of unfulfilled potential. Peter Capaldi had perfected his Doctor in season 9 and then was given nothing to do with him. Bill was an interesting new companion, on paper, but never developed a rapport with the Doctor and was made into an idiot by the second ep, and truly annoying by the third. The Doctor was a professor (for 50 years) and that was ignored. The great mystery of the vault was no mystery at all and Missy’s arc promised to be the best part of the season but did nothing and petered out—that might be the season’s greatest flaw as it brings a memorable character to nothing after repeatedly building her up.

The individual episodes were surprisingly close in quality, with a majority ending up in the lowest third. Season 10 doesn’t sink to the abysmal lows of Season 8, but it has eight episodes in my lowest third. I count the Christmas episode Twice Upon a Time as part of season 10 instead of part of season 11 as is usually the case as it has The Doctor, companion, writer, and showrunner from season 10, all of which would change for season 11. And season 10 could use the help.

Best ep: Twice Upon a Time
Worst ep: The Pyramid at the End of the World / The Lie of the Land


#10 Season 8

If I gave equal weight to the bad episodes in a season, S8 would end up worse than S12, as this season has some truly awful eps. It has both the very worst and the third-worst. But it also has multiple mediocre eps, which isn’t something to be proud of, but is more than S11 or 12 can say.

Clara was weak and distracted. The Doctor was grumpy and miserable; in theory that could make a fine story, but in practice, it was simply unpleasant to watch. Past grumpy Doctors took some pleasure in it. Then there is the arc. Missy/Heaven turned out not to be the arc, as the little glimpses along the way were only preludes to a single two-part episode. The true arc was the Clara/Danny relationship, which was mishandled, starting with the lack of chemistry between the actors, and then going into the poor writing and underdevelopment of the two. It needed warmth, but we never saw that.

Best ep: Dark Water / Death in Heaven
Worst ep: Kill the Moon


#9 Season 7

Matt Smith’s final year was sloppy: Starting with a Xmas ep (the Narnia take-off Mother’s story) that didn’t require The Doctor, passing through some family Pond and overly moralistic eps, and then slipping into the whole “Clara is a Mystery” arc. That arc not only ended with a whimper and a cheat, but also was designed to strip Clara of all agency and strength. She was great in her two pre-companion appearances but then had all her personality stolen and she didn’t get it back till season 9. This season has only one ep in my top 3rd and four in my bottom 3rd.

Note: The 50th Anniversary and Eleven’s regeneration eps are not considered parts of season 7, belonging to no season, though they wouldn’t change 7’s placement if I included them.

Best ep: The Angels Take Manhattan
Worst ep: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS


#8 Season 6

This is a strange season. With the exception of A Christmas Carol and The Doctor’s Wife, all the best episodes are part of the arc, but the arc completely falls apart into meaningless pudding and a huge cheat in the end. Still, I can’t recall having more fun with pudding and a cheat. Amy & Rory are the heart of it all and are engaging and funny. River is the icing. Those three together are a riot, producing some of the funniest episodes of the show, while also pulling at heartstrings. 

The non-arc eps were a tangle of repeats, giving us another stupid healing machine, another horror story based on a kid needing love, another thick morality tale on identity, and another joke ep that included defeating cybermen with love.

Best Ep: A Christmas Carol
Worst Ep: Night Terrors


#7 Season 9

A huge improvement over S8, S9 avoided the depths of S8 & S7, but rarely reached the top tier of episodes. It managed to break into my top 3rd, but only with the solid and emotional final eps, Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, and with the wonderful Christmas episode, The Husbands of River Song. Most of S9’s eps hovered a bit below the mid-point. What worked was the improved Doctor. They’ve never shifted the personality of a Doctor so noticeably before, and only Sylvester McCoy’s and William Hartnell’s come close. Gone is the man who hates everything. In comes the old rocker, and him I want to watch. Clara returned to a character worth watching by finally reverting to the person we first saw as SoufflĂ© Girl.

The arc was a non-starter, since Moffat’s main concern seemed to be setting up red herrings. The hybrid, Missy, and “Me” came to very little and the Time Lords should have been left out of the season.

S9 just barely edges out S6, not due to overall quality, but by its best being a step up from S6’s best. There’s a good argument for moving it above the Specials, but its four eps in my lowest 3rd drag it down.

Best ep: The Husbands of River Song
Worst ep: Sleep No More


#6 The Specials “Season”

Not exactly a season, but with five oversized episodes, it manages a half-season. It’s a mixture of fluff, the ridiculous, and the brilliant. Both Planet of the Dead and The Next Doctor get a lot of undeserved hate in Who Fandom, mostly due to expectations (did they really think that the Next Doctor in The Next Doctor was going to be the Doctor?). They are both pleasant upper mid-tier eps.

After the buildup in The Waters of Mars, I’d have liked to have seen a final for Tennant dealing more with his slip into godhood, but the long, wandering goodbye was satisfying. If I could chop off the last 25 minutes of that rambling two-parter and make it into its own episode, it would be the best of the season and one of the greats.

Best ep: The Waters of Mars
Worst ep: The End of Time


#5 Season 5

Matt Smith takes over, switching The Doctor from a brilliant, dangerous, romantic figure to a cocaine-fueled, slapstick comedian. It’s a move toward the series’ roots as a kid’s show. Luckily kids shows can be fun, and this one is. Eleven works well in the light eps, but doesn’t pull off the serious ones, and never appears dangerous, though he is supposed to.

Amy is everything I’d want in a companion: strong, sexy, a bit wild, and smart. More than The Doctor, it is Amy who caries the season. Rory, the man who dies, starts off uninteresting, but improves greatly, though some of that shows more in later seasons. River is wonderful, but Alex Kingston has no chemistry with Matt Smith. This is more of a problem in season 6.

Both the plot arc and character arc are unusually heavy, with the crack in time not only mentioned in all the episodes but actually playing a part in many. Luckily, it was an arc that worked. The new Matt Smith music is excellent if overused.

Best ep: The Eleventh Hour
Worst ep: The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood


#4 Season 3

S3 was all over the place. No other season had such extreme quality changes, with eps in both my top and bottom 10. In the end, I rank it above S5 due to awarding more points for great episodes than the number I take away for terrible ones.

The arc is a complete failure for multiple reasons, but none more so than its ending, with mini-troll Doctor becoming Jesus due to the old Tinkerbell “kids wish really hard” shtick, the Master going for bad comedy, and the whole thing being undone.

Freema Agyeman could have made a good companion, but her Martha Jones was given nothing to do, and her failed love story was a bust.

On the other hand, don’t blink.

Best ep: Blink
Worst ep: The Sound of Drums / Last of the Time Lords


#3 Season 2

A new Doctor, and for my money, the best, along with a continuation of one of the great companions makes this a solid season. This was the most emotional season and the two leads had fantastic chemistry. The Torchwood/Alternate World/Cyberman arc is well done as it isn’t overly intrusive while telling a story and not cheating in the end. But S2 ends up in 3rd place because it can’t beat the writing for individual episodes in several of the other seasons. A majority of the season is in my top 3rd, but only one ep is in the top 10 and two episodes (Fear Her, The Idiots Lantern) are in my bottom 3rd.

Best ep: The Girl in the Fireplace
Worst ep: Fear Her


#2 Season 4

So much good: The Doctor is fantastic; Companion Donna starts overly shrill but ends up golden; The return of Martha, better than she was in her own season and of Rose, and both get better endings than they had previously. The Dalek/Doctor Donna arc is one of the best, finishing with a fan service episode that delivers exactly what this fan wanted while avoiding being embarrassing. And we get the introduction of River. There’s real emotion in these tales while also telling good stories and delving into the characters. Even the weaker episodes aren’t that weak, not compared to other seasons.

Season 4 has twelve episodes in my top 3rd, including multiple in the top 10.

Best ep: Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead
Worst ep: Midnight


#1 Season 1

It started with the best. With 12 eps in my top third, including #1, and none in the bottom 3rd, S1 easily ranks as the best season. The plot of the arc is wobbly, but the real arc is the change in The Doctor, from broken, angry warrior to a Time Lord with a future, and the growth of Rose, and those both work beautifully. Add in Captain Jack, meaning, emotion, and a lot of fun, and S1 sings. The only flaw is that there isn’t more of it as Christopher Eccleston was a great Doctor and there was a lot more that he could have done. But perhaps his arc wouldn’t have had quite the power if he’d stuck around, but I’d have been willing to chance that.

Best ep: The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances
Worst ep: BoomTown

Jan 062016
two reels

Murderer Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is taken by a secret organization of Templars to their lab run by Rikkin (Jeremy Irons). There, Rikkin’s daughter Sofia will use scientific hocus pocus to regress Lynch to his past life as the Assassin Aguilar (still Michael Fassbender). Sofia hopes to find the Apple of Eden, a MacGuffin that removes all freewill, and thereby end all violence and the everlasting war between the Templars and the Assassins, and Aguilar was the last known person to have it.

Assassin’s Creed was never going to be a great movie. Ignoring that it is based on a video game and video game movies tend not to do well, its basic structure dooms it: the film is split. All of the action is in the past with Aguilar, but we don’t know him. We’re told that the Apple is bad because it takes away freewill and that’s about it. Not shown, just told. So there’s a whole lot of fight scenes between people I didn’t know and didn’t care about for a thing that only matters because I was told it matters. In the present, Lynch doesn’t do anything. He’s angsty and talks a good deal to Sofia, but since the action is in the past, he’s just there between regressions. There’s no way to make that work.

Now, within the limits set by that structure, it could have been much worse. The action is well shot. The story, while far from gripping, at least makes sense. And Fassbender, who elevates everything he touches, makes it all respectable. I don’t know much about Lynch, but I care, a little, because Fassbender makes me care.

It could also have been better. Sofia’s personality is a whirling fog of confusion. Cotillard gazes and poses (ah, so much gazing) and there seems little connection between her expression and whatever emotion I’m guessing Sofia should feel. I’ve been unimpressed by her in other films, so I cannot tell if this was her failing or if the director kept telling her she was to feel one thing when the script was going another way.

The whole sci-fi angle was a mistake as well. They should have kept the regression as magic instead of DNA technobabble since that would have stopped me from asking questions that there are no answers to. But the biggest problem is how gloomy it is. If you are making a movie about super assassins fighting for an enchanted ball then maybe you shouldn’t pretend you are adapting a Russian novel. How to do you make this material pretentious? By its nature it should be fun, but Assassin’s Creed doesn’t want to be fun. It wants to be important, and it was never, ever, going to manage that.

 Fantasy, Reviews Tagged with:
Jan 032016
one reel

Alice’s (Mia Wasikowska) fortunes are taking a nasty turn right when she spots a mirror that leads her back to Underland. Once there she finds that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is dying due to grief over his long dead family. The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) encourages Alice to travel back in time to save his family, but to do so will make an enemy out of Time himself (Sacha Baron Cohen), who happens to be dating the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

“Cynical money-grubbing exercise” is a phrase I’ve heard used for Alice Through The Looking Glass, and one that seems to have doomed the film at the box office, but only because it is completely accurate. Alice In Wonderland (2010) was a huge hit, far beyond expectations, which meant there was more money to be had. Now much of the film business has a touch of cynical money-grubbing about it, but normally the powers-that-be have the good graces to attempt to hide it, that or do their money-grubbing at levels other than the script. But with Alice 2, nothing is done because someone had a good idea (that they could then be money-grubbing about) or they wanted to express a deep theme (perhaps cynically). Even Alien v Predator had more integrity.

Through the Looking Glass isn’t an unpleasant film. I’ve enjoyed films less that I rate better. It is a pretty film and some of the art design is spectacular. And there’s certainly some talent in front of the cameras, even if it is mostly wasted. There are many objective qualities dealing with filmmaking for which Alice 2 ranks quite highly. And it is far less boring then dozens of other films put out this year. If it was a stand-alone film I might give it an extra reel and say to turn it on if it happens to pop up on free TV. Not a ringing endorsement, I know, but better than saying to avoid it.

But it isn’t a stand-alone film. It is a sequel. And a sequel has one job: Don’t mess up the original. And in that Alice 2 fails. Not on the level of Alien 3’s failure, but enough. It makes the world so much smaller. It makes things that were of great importance trivial. It weaken characters. It forces a kind of logic on surreal situations and lessens the world Disney had constructed.

Alice 2 is more prequel than sequel. The time travel “plot” allows for origin stories for both the Red & White Queens as well as the Hatter. But these are origin stories that not only are unnecessary, they rip at the fabric of the movie. Explanations should not be attempted for nonsense, and nonsense is at the heart of both Lewis Carroll’s work and Tim Burton’s. There is no emotional heart to the picture, only information we were better off without. When not in the past, we get family reunions no one has asked for. In the “real world” we get to revisit things that were firmly settled in the previous film and should have been left that way.

The marketing was all about Johnny Depp and so was the film (remember, cynical money-grubbing) which makes it doubly unfortunate that he is terrible. Depp is an idiosyncratic actor and there is often only a short distance between his brilliance and his embarrassing failure. This time he jumped over to the embarrassing side. Most of the rest of the characters, the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledee/Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), and Absolem (Alan Rickman) have no purpose in the film but are there because this is a sequel and that’s how cash-based sequels work.

If I’m sounding too negative, I will admit that Alice Through The Looking Glass would make a fine screen saver.

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