This year I am again going to try to blog about the finalists for the Hugo Awards. I might not cover all of them (I haven’t in previous years) and in particular I might not be able to cover the novelists decently — I normally rely on the Hugo Packet, and this year almost all of the finalists in that category are with Orbit Books, who don’t normally allow their books to be included in full. I’ll read the excerpts they provide, but I may well not manage to read the full books if I have to buy copies and the excerpts are unappealing.
But oddly this year I have experienced all of the Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form candidates — most of them even before the nomination list came out. I have *opinions* about all of them, and as always I will rank them below in the same order in which I’m ranking them on my ballot…
To start with, we have the two episodes of The Good Place, which is my favourite TV series of recent years, and which may well be a candidate for the best TV series ever:
The Good Place: Michael’s Gambit
It’s very difficult for me to talk about this episode without SPOILERS… and even the fact that there *is* a spoiler is, in some senses, a spoiler, so my apologies for that. I’ll try to keep it as vague as possible, but I apologise in advance if you’ve still not seen all of season one of The Good Place and this acts as a spoiler for you. If it helps, it’s still *definitely* worth watching even when you know what’s happening.
But that said, the twist here is so good that there’s actually a viral video of the cast members discovering what the twist is and their expressions of shock. So, you know, it’s a good one.
Both of the two episodes of The Good Place included on the ballot are the two episodes I would choose as the standout episodes of the series as a whole. I’m planning on writing a *lot* more about this series soon, but “Michael’s Gambit”, the season one finale, is one of the best episodes of television ever made (although it relies a lot for its impact on having seen the rest of season one — *SERIOUSLY*, voters, *WATCH THE WHOLE SEASON BEFORE WATCHING THIS ONE*. It’s about six hours of TV, but otherwise this will episode will MASSIVELY spoiler everything before, as it’s a pivotal episode which turns the whole premise of the series on its head.
But with that proviso… this is the most astonishing piece of television I’ve seen in years, perhaps even in decades. It’s so good that I seriously considered nomination *one twenty-second snippet* of it for the award. The scene where Michael smiles (those of you who have seen the episode know the scene I mean, and the smile I mean) is so good that that scene — that shot — deserves an award in itself.
(I’ve said that before, and people who haven’t watched the episode thought I must be exaggerating. And then several of them have independently told me that after watching it they had to rewind and rewatch that shot seven or eight times in a row. I’m not exaggerating).
The Good Place has continually pulled a rug out from under itself and destroyed its own premise, and it took something that could easily have been the premise for multiple seasons of TV and threw it away completely after a handful of episodes, but up until this point there was still the possibility that there was going to be some kind of reset button, and there was also the possibility that the series makers had not rigorously examined their premises.
Instead, it *did* hit a reset button — not the only reset button to be hit in the latter part of season one, some of them actually literal reset buttons — but in doing so it showed us that the programme we thought we’d been watching all along wasn’t the programme it actually was. It’s brilliant, diabolical, and it instantly turned The Good Place from an interesting, mildly amusing, way to pass the time into a masterpiece which stands with the best things the television medium has ever done.
I cannot say enough good things about this episode, or about The Good Place as a whole.
The Good Place: The Trolley Problem
In any series which *hadn’t* produced “Michael’s Gambit”, this would have been the best episode of the year if not the decade. It’s The Good Place at its most Good Place — making the most both of the show’s SFnal conceit and of the fact that one of the things the show exists to do is to explain and discuss philosophy at great length.
In this case, the whole episode is largely devoted to a discussion of the trolley problem, and to actually acting out the emotional drama of the philosophical concept. I’ve talked in the past about how much TV has fallen over the decades — how in the 60s the BBC could commission Jonathan Miller to produce an adaptation of Plato’s Symposium, as a TV drama to be shown in the evening to a casual audience. This is essentially the same kind of thing — this is a philosophy lecture given dramatic form, and even with the names of philosophers and books to check out given so that viewers can do further reading. Yet it’s also ridiculously funny, advances the series plot, and manages to be one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen.
I’ve seen people criticise The Good Place as being only “philosophy 101”, and it is — but at the same time, it’s not an exaggeration to say it *is* philosophy 101, in that it actually does cover the topics you might expect from a university-level but undergraduate philosophy course. It’s a series that’s had plot points depend on the characters’ shared understanding of the works of Kant and which is willing to have characters discuss, however superficially, the resemblance between David Hume’s ideas and Buddhism.
It’s a flawed series — the humour is of a particular US sitcom type which not everyone will find particularly funny, and to my mind it works better as a drama (and in particular as a textbook on how to do cliffhangers) than as a sitcom. But compare this to literally anything else on the list and you’ll see instantly why I get so disappointed with the majority of modern TV. When it’s possible to do *this*, why settle for *that*?
This episode manages to do real character development, to have the humour come out of the characters, and yet also to have a strong plot and most important of all to deal with ideas. Most TV programmes do everything they can to avoid dealing with ideas, and those that occasionally have to, such as modern Doctor Who, try to play it down and say “this is all so confusing and only for nerds, am I right?”
While Eleanor sometimes says things like that, the fact is that this series is on the side of Chidi more than anyone else. It says that ideas *matter*, that they *change people*, that actually thinking about both abstract ideas and one’s own actions is an unambiguously good thing. And this episode epitomises that more than any other. You’ll never find a funnier lecture on consequentialism.
Star Trek: Discovery: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,”
Discovery is a series that I think has been doing a lot of interesting things, but which I don’t think was necessarily doing them intentionally. There are whole plot strands that appear to have been created by Bryan Fuller when he was showrunner, and which appear to have been kept in after Fuller’s abrupt departure, but by people who don’t fully understand what it was he was doing with them. It’s a show in tension with itself, which doesn’t appear to know what its own strengths and weaknesses are, and it will be very interesting to see what happens in season two when Fuller’s initial plot arc is over and the current team have the ability to create something with a unified creative voice. I suspect it will be much less interesting, but probably more coherent.
In the first series, though, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is the closest thing to a non-arc episode, and so probably the one that makes most sense to include in the Hugo nominations. It’s the episode which, as an individual episode, sticks most in my mind, as it’s the closest thing to an old-style Star Trek one and done — the Discovery is trapped in a Groundhog Day style time loop by Harry Mudd, and the characters have to break out of it despite having no memory after each reset.
(I might place this higher had The Good Place not also done an episode with that theme last year — the season two premiere — and also done it much, much better).
The Deep by Clipping
This is more or less an arbitrary placement, as I simply don’t have the aesthetic ability to judge this. “The Deep” is a hip-hop track, which can be found online easily enough, and I know less than nothing about hip-hop as a form. It’s not to my taste, and I don’t understand it at all. I don’t have the tools to tell what counts as good or bad in that genre, and my judgment of its musical merits would be made from a place of complete ignorance. I’m not competent to judge what it’s doing, so I’m just sticking it in the middle — it wouldn’t be fair to leave it off the ballot because of a fault in me, but nor would it be fair to place it particularly high when it could be crap for all I know.
I was quite tempted to give it a higher place just for the concept, though — it’s taking Lovecraftian horror and making the implicit racism even more explicit, linking the origins of the creatures coming from the depths to the slave ships and the founding horrors of American society — the Lovecraftian horrors here are the children of pregnant African women thrown overboard. I can appreciate that, even if not the music — and as with The Good Place, but so rarely in the Dramatic Presentation categories, this is something that’s actually dealing with an idea, and an important one, rather than just going for whizzbang action.
But fundamentally, it’s not something I like, but that dislike isn’t the fault of the music. So, right in the middle it goes.
Black Mirror: “USS Callister,”
I’m not a massive fan of Black Mirror, even though I admire it quite a bit — there’s a bit much of the “what if phones, but bad?” as Daniel Ortberg so memorably put it, and it’s also, in general, just a bit grim. I tend to like pitch-black comedy — I loved Four Lions, for example — but Black Mirror is just that little bit too cynical for me to love, even though I can fully see that it’s very good.
This episode, in particular, I thought was not even particularly good by its own lights, though it’s certainly not *bad* — it just repeatedly pulled its punches. The work environment, which was meant to be somewhat creepy, unpleasant and soulless, was in fact much, much more pleasant than many tech jobs, to the point where I half found myself thinking “I wonder if they’re hiring?” — having a digital clone of oneself forced to play-act at Star Trek at the whim of a mad CTO is still, frankly, less toxic than several workplaces I’ve had in the past, and considering it’s a games company (notoriously the worst places to work even by the dreadful standards of the tech industry) it seems frankly amazing. People being given time to do the work that’s necessary! Release dates being put off in order to have a bug-free release! Where is this utopia?
And the relaxed, fun, atmosphere of the place is reflected in the diversity of the people working there. I saw more women in technical roles in this hour-long episode of a TV show than in the five years I worked at a large multinational tech company whose name you definitely know. A workplace where only *one* person in management is creepily inappropriate with the female staff? Oh Charlie Brooker you sweet summer child.
Callister, if you’re hiring, I’ll ping you my CV.
There’s another decision made that seems to pull punches, for what I think is a rather better reason. The kidnapped digital slaves being put under the control of an angry god-programmer are very explicitly *not* being sexually violated by him. This is, frankly, a *good* decision to make, given the dominance of rape as a theme in genre fiction generally, but it’s… it’s doing something strange with asexuality and stereotypes of nerds that I’m not entirely sure I like, even though I definitely appreciate the motivation. (I still would *definitely* not recommend that anyone who has experienced gaslighting or emotional abuse ever watch this episode though).
It also gets the science wrong, but then again, what SF show doesn’t?
But on a deeper level, I have a serious problem with this as a piece of television. Well, two problems. The first is the style of storytelling. The episode itself is seventy-six minutes long. There is no more story in it than in the forty-five minute Discovery episode, and frankly less than in either of the two twenty-five minute episodes of The Good Place on the ballot. Now that’s not to say that story density is everything, but Black Mirror in general goes for a soporific pace which is televisual shorthand for “this is all very serious now”, but which frankly makes it dull. You could easily trim twenty-five minutes from this without losing anything at all.
The other thing is that… well, the plot line itself is so Star Trek in its essence (people trapped in a world run by a malevolent idiot god is about the only idea Gene Roddenberry ever actually had) that one could have easily spent some of that twenty-five minutes parallelling the story the characters are in with the Star Trek-esque TV series their virtual reality is based on. Instead, the events that are shown in their Space Force world are… well, not really very Star Trek-esque, to be honest. There are all sorts of things you can do with the idea of “Star Trek fan traps people in a Star Trek world, and behaves like a Star Trek villain”, but the episode doesn’t seem to be as interested with playing with the idea as with just sort of laying the idea in front of you and saying “look! An idea!”
This episode could, with a bit more work at the scripting stage, have been really, *really* good. From the same basic premise, and in the same running time, you could produce something that was a devastating critique of toxic nostalgia, of tech culture, of the assumptions of Star Trek… something that paralleled the multiple narrative strands, something that dealt with questions of identity and humanity… but as it is, this is basically Redshirts remade as a Tharg’s Future Shock, and then stretched out to an hour and a quarter by someone who read a Philip K Dick book once and has seen The Matrix.
The sad thing is, that still makes it merit a place on the Hugo shortlist. We’re so starved of televisual and cinematic SF that deals with ideas *at all* that even a style-over-substance piece like this, which takes an overused idea and doesn’t even begin to explore its potential, has a reasonable enough claim to be one of the six best pieces of dramatised SF of the year, so this still places above No Award.
Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I dislike much of the Doctor Who that’s been broadcast over the last thirteen years — I find much of it ethically reprehensible and aesthetically dodgy, and I think it has few of the things I love about the series as broadcast from 1963 through 1989. That said, Steven Moffat has on occasion actually produced good work — both the original TV version of Day of the Doctor and the more recent novelisation are Quite Good, Actually — and I’d hoped that given the brief of not only leaving the show himself but also writing Peter Capaldi’s last story as the Doctor (and Capaldi has been horribly served by his scripts — there’s a great performance in there struggling to get out from under the drivel he’s been performing, and the same could also be said for his predecessor in the role), *and* writing a story which would, in its last moments, introduce the first female incarnation of the Doctor, we might get something worth watching.
Sadly, what we got instead was a repetition of something Moffat has done all too often — an attempt to overwrite the Hartnell era of the programme, and get Moffat’s fingerprints all over it. An attempt that is made worse by the fact that Moffat himself clearly doesn’t actually understand the Hartnell era on any real level. If you’re going to try to rewrite something, you’d better understand what it was doing in the first place before you try to improve it, and Moffat doesn’t.
Frankly, this story is a total mess, and its only appeal is to people like myself who think that “oh, it’s a clip from The Tenth Planet” or “look, the Mondasian Cybermen!” are in themselves selling points. To people who *haven’t* watched a fifty-two-year-old black and white serial whose last episode is missing from the archives, these are not selling points at all.
Unfortunately, for people who *have* watched that story, and who understood it, and who watched other stories containing William Hartnell’s Doctor and understood them, there is nothing to appeal in this story either, because it shows that Steven Moffat doesn’t understand who Hartnell’s Doctor was, and wants to make his ignorance known to all of us. It’s a story that’s *about* nothing other than Doctor Who, but it doesn’t even understand what Doctor Who is. And the use of the 1914 Christmas truce to make a point about Doctor Who is simultaneously something close to sacrilege and also just crushingly banal.
Andrew Rilstone’s review of the episode describes it better than I ever could, but to me this epitomised pretty much everything I loathe in modern TV, and indeed in modern storytelling practices. I hear Paul Cornell’s novelisation is much better than this, but the only good thing about this was Jodie Whitaker appearing at the end, showing the possibility of another fresh start, even if it will likely be just as awful. Such a shame about Capaldi — he’s so good in the role, I just wish he’d been given a chance to show it in his last episode.
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