28 July 2013

Up the Long Ladder

Episode: s2, ep18

I assume the episode title is a reference to DNA. There do not appear to be any actual ladders in the episode.

What Happens
Picard and Riker have a meeting about a signal Starfleet found. It's a very old Earth code coming from somewhere no Earth colony should be. The Enterprise is to investigate the mystery distress signal. Worf seems unwell, then he collapses. In sickbay Pulaski reveals that it's just something faintly embarrassing. She covers up for him and Worf thanks her with tea. No more B-plot for you! Data and Picard discover that a previously unknown colony ship launched from Earth in the 22nd century. Its manifest reveals a curious mixture of hi-tech science kit and low-tech agricultural equipment.
The Enterprise arrives in a system with dangerous solar flares, which triggered the SOS. About 200 humans are discovered under the surface of a planet, needing evacuation. Riker is sent to explain what's happening before they're transported. When O'Brien beams people up he is shocked to discover farm animals and Celtic music and a load of anachronistic Irish stereotypes. The people and their animals are put in a cargo bay and stay there. Riker is attracted to a colonist, whose father is leader of the colonists (at least in name), and after some flirting they have sex.
The leader of the Irish* reveals that there was a second colony. The Enterprise finds a planet full of urban technology that's occupied by clones due to an accident that wiped out all but 5 of the original colonists. The Clones are keen for fresh DNA because they are failing as each generation copied has more flaws. Pulaski explains that fresh DNA for cloning won't solve the actual problem as it's part of the cloning process. Despite the disgust crew members express at the idea of donating DNA for cloning, the Clones steal DNA from Pulaski and Riker. Geordi helps them discover this and the growing clones are destroyed.
Picard decides to kill two birds with one stone and insists that the two colonies merge, even though their cultures are wildly different. The Irish need a planet and the Clones need fresh DNA - and to get over this whole icky cloning thing. The Clone leader is bullied into meeting with the Irish leader, they do not get on. Picard insists they have to learn and doesn't leave anyone with a real choice in the matter. The scientific, asexual Clones are the exact opposite of the Irish.  Let's make 'em share a planet, because the Odd Couple concept will work wonders in colonisation.

Oh Captain, My Captain
Picard is initially grumpy about messy agricultural folk on his nice clean ship, but quickly "bow[s] to the absurd", which is a healthy attitude to have though perhaps patronising. Picard treats the Clones more as equals and at least he explains that Federation morals/taboos around cloning are different, rather than getting offended straight away. In the end Picard judges both cultures for being different to his own. Then he forces the two wildly different and divergent peoples to merge their societies and set up a breeding programme, which is somewhat dictatorial.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management
Riker is seduced by a forthright, flame-haired Irishwoman called Brenna, who is also the leader's daughter and utterly competent at actually running things. As happens with TV flirting there is plenty of weird and unlikely dialogue, with foot washing becoming a coy metaphor for sex (yeah, really). Riker plays it a bit too subtle for this lass, though at least she tidies up his room before showing him her underskirts. When she asks whether he's interested in girls he replies "Of course" as though there's no other option. So late-20th Century assumptions still apply in 24th Century then? How disappointing.
When meeting the Clones Riker is aghast at the suggestion of donating tissue samples and gets heated during discussion, even though the Clones mean absolutely no offense. He gets very pointed about his individuality, which is funny when you think that he's going to meet an accidental clone of himself later on. Riker is understandably angry when he discovers his tissue has been taken without his knowledge and destroys his still-growing clone without a thought. Though it seems like maybe the Clones should have tried stealing tissue from someone other than the person who voiced the strongest objections to the idea.

Klingon Warrior
At the very beginning Worf seems a bit peaky. Just before the opening credits Worf collapses. After the credits Worf is in the sickbay and Pulaski reveals that he has a disease normally caught by Klingon children. Basically it's Klingon-measles, and Worf is humiliated. When the Captain asks her what's going on Pulaski says that Worf was fasting and overdid it a bit. To thank her for saving him from embarrassment Worf shows Pulaski a Klingon tea ceremony. Pulaski is thrilled, though Worf warns that the tea is deadly to humans. It's not good for Klingons either, but is used as a test of bravery. Worf waxes poetical, which impresses Pulaski. She injects herself with something from the sickbay that is apparently an antidote (did she just invent that, or was it just lying around?). They drink and she asks about Klingon poetry.
And that's the B-plot resolved within the first 15 minutes. Everything else is A-plot (except for Riker having sex).

Doctor Doctor
Pulaski kinda cheats at Klingon tea since it's not much of a test of bravery if you've taken an antidote. Then again she's too smart to drink something that would definitely kill her.
Pulaski goes on the away mission to the Clone planet and is first to spot that they are clones (everyone else assumes multiple identical siblings who all work in the same building). She asks relevant technical questions and explains the replicative fading problem with cloning and why samples of fresh DNA won't help.
Her attitude to the Clones doesn't seem much better than Riker's, even though she's normally fairly compassionate. She describes the Clones as walking dead, which seems harsh. Clearly she doesn't consider them to be individuals, I expect she views them as lab experiments rather than people in a functioning society. She even bullies them into agreeing to merge with the Irish colony by pointing out that they'll cease to exist in a few generations, leaving a planet with infastructure just waiting for Federation colonisation.
Pulaski uses her scientific knowledge to suggest a polyandrous breeding programme for the merged colony, in which each woman should ideally have children by at least three different men. That's still only a breeding pool of a little over 200, doesn't seem like much. I get the impression that there are a lot of Clones, but genetically they only count as 5 people.

Counsellor Pointless
Troi is the only person who has any consideration for the Clones' viewpoint and she explains the perfectly understandable reasons why their society is the way it is. It might have been interesting if Troi had interacted with the Clones, at least we might have found out whether they were individuals with their own personalities and ideas, or whether these clones were psychological/mental copies of the original 5 colonists. But who cares about questions like that when you could be amused by a drunken Irishman instead?

Poor O'Brien

Oh look, living embodiments of your culture's distant past have turned up at your workplace. How unexpected.

Planet of the Anachronistic Irish Stereotypes
Are ye ready for some Olde Worlde Gaelic charm?
These colonists are the ancestors of those who left Earth, apparently to start a low-tech colony based around the then-popular idea of a "return to a simpler life in which one lived in harmony with nature, and learned under her gentle tutelage." Apparently nature's gentle tutelage gets you something approximating a pastoral Irish idyll.
Well, the leader of the Irish colony sure has the gift of the gab, he's forthright, but friendly and of course enjoys strong alcohol. He even does a comedy wheeze when Worf gives him Klingon booze. His daughter is of course red-headed and even more forthright, not in a leadership position herself (presumably because she's a woman) but taking charge of her father and everyone else to ensure that the practical stuff gets done. She moans about the way men are, but seems conditioned to tidy up after them. Her father's solution to his nagging-daughter problem is to try to marry her off, preferably to some rich fella.
The rest of the Irish are clearly agricultural folk who look like they're from the late 19th or early 20th century (as opposed to the 22nd). They rely on their farm animals and fill the cargo bay with their worldly possessions and bales of hay. They are a simple, hard-working but jolly folk, and music is clearly very important to them as there is always something playing in the background, even though the musicians can't be seen. Someone even manages to play a reel while being transported. I guess we can at least give thanks that they weren't all wearing green and no one says begorrah.

Planet of the Clones
The second colony, that the Picard knew nothing about until the Irish leader mentions it, is the one that had all the hi-tech equipment listed in the colony ship's manifest, being a more scientifically-minded group. Their planet is safe from solar flares and has reasonably advanced tech and urban infastructure. At first it seems that these people are going to be more relateable for the Enterprise crew than the farmer-folk in the cargo bay. The Clone leader explains that the colony ship was badly damaged when landing and only 5 colonists survived. Rather than give up and die they came up with a solution and cloned themselves. At first sex was prohibited and suppressed with drugs, but after 300 years the Clones have lived without it and are a little repelled by the idea.
There's little exploration of the realities of cloning, besides that they're grown in vats. It's an imperfect solution, and they know it. We never really meet any other Clones besides the leader, so it's impossible to say what they're like as people or a society. We don't know if they consider themselves as individuals despite being genetically identical. The leader argues that cloning is they only way they can survive, and points out that cloning Riker does not directly harm him. However there's little actual exploration of their viewpoint, the message is that cloning is repugnant. As it turns out Clones are sneaky, with their DNA stealing ways. I feel like I'm not supposed to be on their side. There's also no indication why people who have developed reliable cloning don't use their tech to create a little more genetic variety. Of course 5 people can never be a genetic base, but I would have thought they could mix some genes to create a little more variety. But what do I know?

The Prime Directive is a Harsh Mistress
I have new respect for the Prime Directive, because this episode shows what happens when groups aren't protected by it.
As humans neither the Irish nor the Clones are protected by the Prime Directive. And even though none of them are in any way affiliated with the Federation that doesn't stop Starfleet turning up and making them drastically alter their society. The negotiations (and first meeting) between the two cultures ended up with Picard and Pulaski telling them how it was gonna be. There was no suggestion of both sides trying to sort things out together, or even having time to acclimatise to each other.

Future History
We learn that the European Hegemony was a loose alliance formed in the early 22nd century, and one of the first steps towards world government. The signal beacon was in use between 2123 and 2190. There were space launches to other solar systems during this time. It seems that this was a chaotic time and records from then are incomplete, which is why there's no record of the correct launch. Earth was recovering from WWIII at the time and nature philosophy was very strong.
Data suggests that even though there's no record of launch itself there would be a ship's manifest. Of course! For details of deep space launches are written on the flimsiest of tissue paper and thrown to the breeze, but you can be damn sure that a full loading manifest would be created electronically, saved in several places and carved in stone to ensure that it survived for future generations. This 22nd Century chaos sounds really confusing. Or perhaps this episode was written by someone who does not understand how information survives over time.
After Data's suggestion Picard quickly finds a detailed manifest from 2123, which must be immediately identifiable. It seems odd that the Computer, or Starfleet Research, didn't find it sooner. Or why didn't Picard think of looking for it himself, isn't he supposed to be an amateur historian/archaeologist?

Do Your Research, Research
Riker identifies the beacon as a kind of SOS, figuring out in seconds what it took hours for Starfleet Research to ascertain. It turns our Riker is familiar with most Earth codes (including SOS, which must be long defunct). Picard asks the Computer to identify it, turns out it's from the European Hegemnoy and was in use between 2123 - 2190. This all seems like the kind of thing that should have been done by Starfleet Research, but apparently none of them thought of it. Plus it seems to take an android to think of searching for related documentation when looking through historical (computerised) documentation.
Based on this I suspect that Starfleet Research is where the Admirals send their layabout cousins, drunken siblings and keen-but-useless nieces and nephews who can't find gainful employment elsewhere.

The End
The Irish leader tells Brenna what was decided while the Clone leader looks alarmed and awed at everything about the Irish. She displeased with the "grandiose plans" decided by men, but concedes when Picard says the alternative is dropping her off at the nearest starbase. She stays out of duty, makes speculative eyes at the Clone leader and smilingly ponders the implications of three husbands.**

* For the purpose of this post I'm using Irish as a shorthand for the agricultural colonists, because of how that's clearly what they're meant to be. I appreciate that actual Irish people aren't like this.

** Based on how their society works it seems like 3 husbands would simply be three times the work for the women. You get the impression that the other Irish women may not be able to marshal people as well as Brenna does.

25 July 2013

The Doll's House

The Sandman graphic novels are intended for mature readers and though this post doesn't go into explicit detail there is discussion of events in the collection, including a serial killer convention. Just so you know.

After an introduction by Clive Barker the collection opens with an atmospheric recap of what has gone before. It invokes the feeling of coming late to a film or a play and describes (but does not directly name) Destiny reading the events of Preludes & Nocturnes from his book. This pre-prologue is where we first learn that Dream was "tried almost beyond endurance" at the time of his capture. In itself it's a good piece of writing, neatly recapping the first collection and providing snippets of other information. "Tools can be the subtlest of traps" is used to describe Dream's reliance on his ruby, it's a phrase that has stuck with me and seems profound and relevant, especially in the modern digital world.

Queen Nada
Neil Gaiman has said that the main story arcs in Sandman alternate between masculine and feminine. The Doll's House is mostly a feminine story, though masculine stories and viewpoints occur regularly throughout the collection.
The prologue issue, 'Tales in the Sand' (Part 0), tells the history of Queen Nada (last seen trapped by Hell). Her brief relationship with Kai'ckul (Dream), leads to the destruction of her great glass city, because mortals should not love the Endless. Cities occur regularly in the series, often in stories that are being told within the comic. This is a tribal story, ritualistically told in the desert when a boy becomes a man. It is the secret history of the first people, from whom the tribe are descended. It could be set in Africa, but location is never specified and one thing you learn as you read Sandman is that civilisations, histories and stories are not confined to humanity or Earth and that life has existed in some form for a very long time. It is made clear that this version of Nada's story is a tale told by the men of the tribe, the women tell a different version, which men never hear.

Two more Endless siblings are introduced; the twins Desire and Despair. Desire (who is not confined to a single gender) plots against older brother Dream and consults with Despair. This is the first time we see the realm of another Endless; Desire's realm has a citadel that is fashioned into an enormous likeness of Desire. We also get our first view of a gallery, which is how the Endless communicate with each other using sigils (symbols) that relate to each sibling.
Rose Walker
The main narrative of The Doll's House follows Rose Walker, a young American woman who arrives in England with her mother, Miranda, at the request of a mysterious and wealthy benefactor. The benefactor turns out to be Unity Kinkaid (struck down with sleepy sickness as a girl in 1916), who flew them to England to announce that she is Miranda's biological mother. Little old Unity -who still feels 17- discovered after waking that her baby had been conceived, born and discreetly adopted while she slept. After that bombshell Rose has a weird encounter with the Maiden, Mother and Crone, who cryptically warn her of what's coming from a broom cupboard.
Meanwhile Dream is restoring order to the his kingdom and his librarian Lucien conducts a census. This reveals that 4 powerful beings have gone missing from the Dreaming. There is also a dream vortex which, unbeknownst to her, is Rose Walker. Dream monitors Rose with the help of his raven Matthew, as the missing dreams will be drawn to her eventually.

Rose returns to the States to find the young brother she hasn't seen in 7 years. While searching she rents a room in a house in Florida, which is home to a set of interesting characters. Supportive landlord Hal performs as Dolly in a drag show. Ken and Barbie are "the Stepford yuppies", too normal and perky to be true. Zelda and Chantal the veiled women who collect spiders and whose precise relationship is a mystery. Gilbert a large and eccentric Englishman who takes a shine to Rose and accompanies her on her search. Houses have significance in the series, and many issues start with a picture of a building. There are a few examples of groups of people who live together forming loose communities, as happens here. Rose and Gilbert drive to Georgia to meet Jed, but have to check into a hotel after having car trouble.
Rose is shown to be fairly tough when she confronts potential attackers in a dark alleyway (though on this reread it occurs to me that she really should have run, it didn't look like her escape was blocked). This scene of violent crime avoided mirrors other scenes in the collection where we see things from murderous viewpoints. There is a very strong undercurrent of violence and death in The Doll's House, but we mostly see the run up or aftermath of violent acts. The actual murders happen offscreen, the power is in the suggestion not the portrayal.

A missing nightmare called The Corinthian roams America on a bloody killing spree, mostly involving young men and sharp knives. He is invited to a convention.

Jed, Rose's 12-year old brother, is kept in squalor by cruel relatives. Jed being punched in the gut is one of few on-page acts of violence. His only escape is in his dreams, where he plays with a married superhero couple in a colourful world. A pair of missing dreams are living in Jed's mind, they caught the ghost of Hector Hall in an attempt to create a new Sandman. Hector brought his pregnant wife Lyta with him, and they've been living in the dream dome for the last 2 years. Hector (who is pretty dumb) believes he's the Sandman and that he protects children everywhere from nightmares, something that greatly amuses Morpheus when they meet. Lyta seems to be in some kind of numb trance, it's suggested that such conditions are not good for the mental health of the living. When Dream discovers what has happened he punishes his wayward subjects, sends Hector's soul into death, and tells the furious Lyta that one day he will claim her baby. Jed is released from the clutches of his abusers, but isn't safe as he stumbles to the highway and hitches a ride.
Hob Gadling

"Men of Good Fortune" (Part 4) is an interlude from the main story arc to introduce Hob Gadling. Dream and Death -in period appropriate garb- visit a tavern in 1389, where they hear a soldier-for-hire claims that he won't die. Dream approaches Hob and offers to meet again on the same day in the same tavern in 100 years time. Hob and Dream meet once a century in the same tavern on the same date in '89. We see changing fashions, language, and pub design. Hob's fortunes rise and fall and his attitudes change. We also see how much remains the same, especially the things people talk about. In the first and last scenes there's a deliberate comparison between conversations in 1389 and 1989. This is a masculine story about a growing, but odd, friendship.

The Corinthian
Rose and Gilbert are told to stay in the hotel by the authorities because Jed is missing after an explosion killed his abusive guardians. The hotel is hosting a convention for cereal collectors, so Rose and Gilbert agree to stay in their rooms. The collectors turn out to be serial killers, and The Corinthian is last-minute guest of honour. The convention looks a lot like an SF convention, except terrifying, as we see glimpses into the private worlds of the murderous attendees. The writing and art mostly seem normal, just groups of people chatting in the bar or listening to panels. Though the conversations become increasingly open and disturbing, and there are panels and pages that show the collectors as they they see themselves, which are fairly grim. Gilbert recognises the Corinthian and gives Rose Morpheus's name, to call if she needs help. One of the convention volunteers tries to attack Rose, in direct violation of the convention's strict no collecting policy. Rose summons Morpheus, who saves her and then confronts the Corinthian during his murderer-empowering speech. Dream's disappointment with the Corinthian isn't that he's done terrible things, rather that he hasn't made enough of an impression on humanity: "You told them that there are bad people out there. And they've known that all along." Dream uncreates the Corinthian and sends his human followers into the night, less sure of themselves than they were when they arrived. Gilbert finds Jed unconscious in the Corinthian's car, and they take him to hospital.
The power of suggestion and description is what makes the Collectors effective, there aren't panels depicting them actually killing. This means that the scene of Rose being attacked is all the more shocking for being shown on page. The Women in Serial Killing panel is amusing as a parody of SF conventions. However if those panels were happening back in 1989 I don't understand why they're still needed now, nearly 25 years later. Females are the most populous gender, some of us are geeky, could we all move on please? Anyway... one positive in the comic is that though there's obviously much talk of violence in this issue, women aren't especially singled-out as the victims and only one troubled collector directly equates killing with sex. It's also interesting that the Corinthian, the main viewpoint serial killer, preys on boys and men. There's very few depictions of female victims, something we are bombarded by in other media.

Rose returns to the Florida house under a cloud. Jed is unconscious in hospital, Gilbert has disappeared, and from England Miranda reports that Unity is dying. When she finally sleeps, Rose senses the dreams of Ken, Barbie, Hal, Chantal and Zelda and somehow breaks down the walls so that they become one big dream. This is what it means to be a dream vortex and Rose senses dreams across the city and beyond. Morpheus stops Rose and takes her to the centre of the Dreaming. He explains that if left unchecked she could destroy the minds of everyone in the world, something that happened once before. It is Morpheus's responsibility to kill Rose, the only time he is allowed to kill a human. Gilbert visits Jed in hospital and meets Matthew the raven, who used to be a man but died and became a dream. Gilbert, the fourth missing dream, used to be a place called Fiddler's Green. When Gilbert learns that Rose is a vortex he returns to the Dreaming to offer his life instead. Morpheus cannot accept the offer and Gilbert becomes a verdant paradise again. Dream is about to kill Rose but is interrupted by a young woman who announces that Rose isn't going to die. It's Unity, the dream-version of her. Sleeping her way towards death Unity understands more than even Dream. She was meant to be the vortex 70 years before, but Dream's capture delayed the process and the vortex was inherited by Rose. As they're in the dream world Unity instructs Rose to give her her heart, making her the vortex again. Unity breaks the heart, killing herself before she dies naturally and saving not just Rose but the world. Unity turns out to be forthright and confident when she's not a frail old lady. She tells Morpheus that he's "obviously not very bright", which is pretty cool.
The action fast forwards six months, Rose has been hiding in her room in her family's big new house. She tries to figure out what happened and what that means for her grip on reality. She mentions that her friend Judy was killed in a diner about a year before, a reference to Preludes & Nocturnes. It's taken her a long time to get over what happened, but she's finally decided to stop dwelling on it. Meanwhile Dream visits Desire and discusses what happened. It turns out Desire was Miranda's biological father, and if Dream had killed Rose (his great-niece) he would have spilled family blood. The true depth's of Desire's plan aren't clear, though it hasn't worked. This short sequence shows the enmity between Dream and Desire.

The Doll's House was the 4th Sandman graphic novel I read. I'd already heard a little of Rose in A Game of You. I first read The Doll's House not long before I went to university. In one of those odd coincidences that feels like it has more meaning than it actually does, the same evening I read The Doll's House I also watched a BBC documentary about the disease encephalitis lethargica - also known a sleepy sickness. It was kinda weird to hear about it from 2 entirely separate sources in the same evening. I remember that the documentary said sleepy sickness sufferers tended to have sore throats before succumbing to the disease. I had a sore throat that evening, which seemed creepy at the time.

This collection features glass hearts being passed between two hands. This image is a recurring theme in the series. A heart-shaped piece of glass is passed between a young tribesman and his grandfather before and after hearing the story in 'Tales in the Sand', it is the remains of Nada's glass city. After the tale is told the tribesman tosses the heart back onto the desert sands. I noticed that the explosion of the city, caused by the Sun, creates a heart-shaped cloud. I'm certain that it's significant that the heart is Desire's sigil.

The next instance is in the final issue when Rose passes her heart (the thing which makes her the vortex) to her grandmother Unity. I'm very familiar with this image because my husband and I used it on the back of the Save the Date cards for our wedding (we wanted something geeky but also romantic looking). Unity takes the heart, and the significance that it is weighted with, and breaks it in half, killing herself, saving Rose and stopping the vortex. Seeing the images together I now notice that even the hand positions are the same.

There are two occasions in the collection when the you have to flip the book around in order to continue reading. This is an interesting thing that (almost?) never happens in prose books and is fairly rare in picture books, but which I enjoy in comics. It's an option available in a medium where words and pictures are used together and contribute equally to storytelling. I've seen it used interestingly in Alan Moore's Promethea and in The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross.
Soon after Rose arrives in England, she goes to sleep in the back of a car and you have to tilt the book 90 degrees clockwise as Rose slips into the dreaming. The book has to be held at that orientation for six pages, while Lucien conducts a census of the Dreaming. When Rose wakes up the book returns to standard orientation, signalling the end of her dream.
Towards the end of the story, when Rose first comes into her vortex powers there's a page where she destroys the walls between the dreams of everyone in the household. You have to turn the book to see all the dialogue. A section of that page appears at the top of this post.

In "Men of Good Fortune" we see the same two characters and the same location over 6 centuries. It is interesting to see the different fashions they go through, as well as the different ways Morpheus's ruby is included in his costume (until 1989 anyway).

We get more images of Kai'ckul, the version of Dream that Nada falls in love with.

The cloud faces return as Dream takes Rose to the heart of the Dreaming and explains what a vortex does.
  • Nada - Queen of the first people and lover of Kai'ckul, who saw her city destroyed because of love and was sentenced to Hell for rejecting her lover - briefly featured in Preludes & Nocturnes
  • Desire - Dream's sibling, described as "always cruel", Desire was behind Dream's tragic relationship with Nada, and various other plots
  • Despair - Desire's twin sister
  • Rose Walker - a young American woman with weird dreams and a confusing family history, she was a dream vortex for a time
  • Hippolyta 'Lyta' Hall - Pregnant for over two years while living in dreams with her dead superhero husband, defiant towards the "spooky bastard" who wants to claim her baby
  • Matthew - Dream's raven, acts as messenger and intelligence-gatherer for his boss, used to be a man but came to a bad end
  • The Corinthian - a disturbing nightmare designed to be the dark mirror to humanity, he likes to kill young men and eat their eyes, a disappointment to his creator
  • Gilbert/Fiddler's Green - a powerful place in the heart of the Dreaming who lived as a human for a time, seems to be the British writer GK Chesterton
  • Hob Gadling - 14th century soldier-for-hire who continues living through the 20th century, meets up with his mysterious friend once a century
  • Barbie - married to Ken ("isn't that a scream"), seems perfectly weirdly normal, but has vivid fantastical dreams that mean more to her than real life

Again the section on Foreshadowing is under the cut. This is a long post (I didn't realise I had so much to say until I started writing) but there isn't much more if you're reading on.
Comments welcome.

Last week: Preludes & Nocturnes 
Next week: Dream Country

18 July 2013

Preludes & Nocturnes

Welcome to Sandman summer, I hope you enjoy it (if you're one of the people who comes here for the Star Trek posts, I plan to continue doing those too). Comments welcome. Sandman is one of those works I'd really like to talk about more, though it doesn't come up in conversation all that much.

The Sandman graphic novels are intended for mature readers and though this post doesn't go into explicit detail there is discussion of events in the collection. Just so you know.

Preludes & Nocturnes collects the first eight issues of Sandman and shows the series finding its feet. The first issue sketches the circumstances surrounding the capture of Dream and his seven decades of imprisonment. The story is strong and encompasses a variety of viewpoints beside the titular character. The passage of time is shown effectively through the changing circumstances in the household of Dream's captor, Roderick Burgess, and the condition of the sleepers affected by the Dream Lord's sudden absence. There are glimpses of complex relationships between people, an element which works so successfully in the rest of the series.

The next six issues detail Lord Morpheus's far from triumphant return to his broken kingdom, the Dreaming, and his quest to regain three objects of power lost after his capture. Searching for his pouch of dream sand means the Sandman joins forces with John Constantine of the Hellblazer comics. To retrieve his helm Dream must travel to hell, where he encounters Lucifer and bests a demon in contest. Dream contacts the Justice League to find his ruby, which contains much of his power. Meanwhile Dr Dee, a dangerously insane supervillain, hunts for the gem and uses it to send the world slowly mad. During their confrontation Dee destroys the ruby in order to kill Dream, but inadvertently empowers him instead.
These stories link with the wider DC universe far more than any other part of the series, something that isn't always successful. I realised there were references to pre-establiahed characters and comics, but I only fully understood some of them. I had no history with John Constantine or the Martian Manhunter, though I understood Arkham Asylum and the Scarecrow. Much more successful are the horror aspects in the story, which I can appreciate though I'm not usually a horror fan. Dr Dee is a twisted, awful person, as well as being rather pathetic and nearly sympathetic. '24 Hours' barely features Morpheus, starting the tradition of issues in which the Sandman plays only a brief role. Instead it details 24 hours in which Dee slowly and terribly uses the power of the ruby to torture people in a diner, whilst wreaking havoc on the unconscious minds of the wider population. It is one of the darkest and most horrible things I have ever read, which is why I'm glad I didn't start with this collection. I might not have gone back to the series if I had. The issue had strong characters who felt well rounded and were brutally destroyed.

The final issue 'The Sound of Her Wings' is beautiful. It introduces Dream's sister Death, one of the most popular characters from the series. She's friendly and perky, but isn't afraid of telling her younger brother off for being self-centred and self-pitying. It's a wonderfully comic scene and one that establishes the strength of the relationship between these siblings. Death missed her brother and was worried about him, though I do always wonder why Death and Dream didn't communicate when she came for Roderick Burgess. Dream accompanies Death as she goes about her work. In contrast to the killings in the last few issues these deaths are treated with reverence, and show how Death respects each individual, even though they aren't happy to see her. In the end Morpheus has a renewed sense of purpose and the final panel is one of the most joyful images we ever see of Dream.

Preludes & Nocturnes is actually the 5th Sandman graphic novel I read. Though there are numbers on the spines I initially chose the graphic novels based on which sounded most interesting to me, which was probably a good thing. I remember that I first read Preludes & Nocturnes during my first semester at university. I was in my room on the top floor of a university hall of residence. I remember this because after reading I felt kinda freaked out, especially having read '24 Hours' and wanted some company. All my flatmates were out, so I went downstairs to hang out with people I knew in a ground floor flat. Though I had -and still maintain- a kind of vampiresque horror of going to other people's homes uninvited that somehow didn't apply whilst living in uni flats.

The first and last panel of first issue 'Sleep of the Just' are the same view of Fawney Rig, the mansion of Roderick Burgess, which is inherited (along with it's basement captive) by his son Alex. Despite the decades that have passed the house itself has not noticeably changed, perhaps it's the only thing that hasn't.

After Morpehus escapes he is naked and has to scrounge for sustenance in dreams before he can create clothing for himself. Morpheus's lily-white arse is clearly displayed in one panel. Having read later collections first, I'd come to think of Morpheus as grave and kingly, so it was a bit of a surprise to see him like that the first time.

The trip to hell gave artist Sam Kieth an opportunity to display a lot of mad landscapes and grotesque creatures. The story in 'A Hope in Hell' is OK, though there's a lot of references to Hell's politics that don't really engage me, I assume they relate to things happening elsewhere in the DC universe at the time. The art however is wildly inventive and interesting, meaning the background is sometimes more interesting than the plot. It also introduces a version of Lucifer who's a dead ringer for David Bowie's Thin White Duke.

In several panels, especially those showing Dream travelling or using his influence, there are dreaming faces. These come in two forms, either diverse human faces surrounded by darkness, or vaguer face-shapes appearing in cloud-like formations. This is a visual theme that is used at various points in the series, especially when invoking the power of dreams.

A constant feature of the many faces of Dream is that his eyes are dark spaces with light inside. However in a comic moment in 'The Sound of her Wings' Death throws a loaf of bread at her brother's head, and Dream is shown with what appears to be a human-looking eye. I can't remember if that actually happens again in the series.

  • Dream - Lord Morpheus, King of Dreams, the Sandman
  • Death - his older sister
  • Destiny - another of the Endless, not formally introduced but shown and named in a small panel
  • Maiden, Mother and Crone - the three-who-are-one, the Witch Queen, an ancient power
  • Cain & Abel - murderer and victim from the oldest story
  • Lucien - loyal Librarian of the Dreaming
  • Lucifer - formerly an angel, now the Devil and Lord of Hell

I talk about elements of foreshadowing under the cut. On the one hand it seems silly to worry about spoiling a 25 year old series. On the other hand, if you haven't read to the end of the series there's stuff you might not want to know. It's impressive that even so early on there are themes, dialogue and events that have greater significance even at the very end of the series.

Next week: The Doll's House

12 July 2013

Sandman Summer

A year ago Neil Gaiman announced that there would be a new Sandman comic coming out in November this year to coincide with the 25th anniversary.

My husband called me over to watch the video with him. He knows I'm a Sandman fan, I was reading through the series when we met and started going out. In fact early in our relationship he'd buy me Sandman related gifts for Christmas and birthdays, probably figuring they were a pretty safe bet.

As soon as I realised what the announcement was, before Neil Gaiman had read out the relevant passage, I knew what the new story would be. There was only one story it could be. There was one significant mystery which had never been answered in the original Sandman run. I didn't mouth along with the words "tried almost beyond endurance", but I knew they were coming before they arrived.

I've realised this year is (roughly) a Sandman anniversary for me as I started reading the graphic novels about ten years ago when I was in Sixth Form College. I'd briefly seen a friend's copy and been interested. The main bookshop in my hometown had just started selling graphic novels. At that point in my life I didn't quite identify as a geek, but was heading inexorably in that direction. I was reading the graphic novels for the first time when I went to university, and that was a time of good changes for me.

This summer I'm going to blog about the Sandman graphic novel collections, one each week. It's been a few years since I've done a full reread. I've always had a pretty good memory for plots and certain panels in Sandman, but I expect it will be like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

I'd love to hear other about people's memories or experiences of the series. It's always fascinating to find out about the little things other people have noticed, or any theories for the new issues coming later this year. Whether you've read them before or not I hope that some of you will join me and have your own Sandman summer.*

I'll post about Preludes & Nocturnes on Thursday week.

I (accidentally) have 2 of the 10th anniversary Sandman statues.
Preludes and Nocturnes
The Doll's House 
Dream Country
Season of Mists 
A Game of You 
Fables & Reflections 
Brief Lives 
Worlds' End 
The Kindly Ones
The Wake
Endless Nights

* This being the internet I appreciate that it isn't summer for everyone, so feel free to substitute the appropriate season/period of time.

6 July 2013

Samaritan Snare

Episode: s2, ep 17

What Happens
Wesley and Picard take a trip in a shuttle, this worries Wes more than the exams he's going to take. Picard is leaving for a discreet medical procedure (not a facelift or anything like that). Wesley asks various awkward questions to fill the silence, I guess he forgot to bring a book or music.
Riker responds to a distress call from some apparently dimwitted aliens with fluffy, vertical eyebrows. They barely seem able to figure out how their ship works and Geordi is sent over to help, despite Worf's reservations. I realised that the aliens were going to try and steal Geordi (I was reminded of Firefly episode 'Safe' in which hill folk abduct Simon because they need a doctor). Troi warns that Geordi is in danger, no one really does anything until after the aliens have managed to trap the Chief Engineer on their ship.
A plan is developed to save Geordi, who has to do most of the work in his own rescue and deciphers a vaguely cryptic message Riker delivers over a hail. The slightly confusing plan, which may or may not involve firing on the Enterprise, seems to work and Geordi is beamed back.
Picard's simple heart procedure goes awry and Pulaski is the only doctor who can save him, ironic as Picard went to the base so that she wouldn't do it. Geordi is saved just in time for the Enterprise to take Pulaski to save Picard, who is decidely grumpy when he wakes up.

Heart surgery makes your head cold
Oh Captain, My Captain
Picard gets all proud and defensive and refuses to undergo a heart procedure on the ship with Pulaski, even though she's an expert. It seems Picard is terrified that his medical information will become ship gossip. This suggests that he doesn't trust the discretion of Pulaski or the medical staff, which seems unfair. He refuses to tell Riker why he's going on a sudden trip to a starbase, so Riker assumes the Captain is hiding something work-related from him.
On the shuttle trip Picard grumps at Wesley, who's mostly trying to fly the shuttle and control his nerves. Then Wesley asks personal questions, which Picard deals with fairly well. Picard eventually tells the story of how he was stabbed through the heart in a bar fight when he was a cadet, which is why he has an artificial heart that needs replacing. Young-Picard was clearly quite a hothead.
Picard is really grumpy to see Pulaski when he wakes from surgery, which is unfair as she saved his life and all.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management
Riker underestimates fools easily and doesn't listen.
The Chief of Security is warns him not to send the Chief Engineer to a strange ship. Troi warns him that all is not as it seems and yet Riker takes no action. When it all goes wrong, as Worf suggested and Troi predicted, Riker comes up with a ruse to get Geordi back and sends the engineer an unsubtly coded message. When Pulaski is ordered by Starfleet to come and save Picard, Riker delays to ensure Geordi can be brought back. It's not what Starfleet wants, but you just know Picard would be furious if Geordi couldn't be saved because of him.

Blind Engineering
Sometimes it seems that Geordi is too nice for his own good, which I can relate to. Though he's incredibly irritated by the eyebrow aliens and their dumb questions Geordi keeps fixing things for them and being vaguely polite. When they injure and abduct him Geordi gets angry but realises that he's in no position to actively resist. He figures out Riker's coded message and does (or maybe pretends to do) something, so that the aliens drop their shields and he can be beamed back. I'm assuming there's a reason Geordi couldn't reduce the shields while pretending to do something else. I'm also not sure how much those aliens were pretending to be stupid.

Counsellor Pointless
Troi successfully senses a threat to a crew member. Hurrah!
Of course, for once, she's not actually on the Bridge when unknown aliens present an unseen threat. After Geordi beams over she senses he's in danger and that they're being deceived. She rushes to the Bridge to tell Riker, it's a shame that he barely listens to her warning, otherwise everything would be fine. [Insert comical reference to Cassandra of Troy, preferably including a play on Troi's name.]
Even Data points out that Troi has ESP and Riker still doesn't think there's a threat.

The Boy
It turns out Wesley asks awkward questions when he's nervous. At first he asks Picard about the cardiac procedure, which is fair enough as Picard brought it up in the first place. Then Wes asks questions about Picard's personal life (which might be a sore subject for all he knows). Picard warns Wes about commitments affecting career.*

You can tell this was filmed before ipods existed
Wesley: No problem. Where women are concerned I am in complete control.

What does that even mean? I'm not sure what context I should be taking those words in. I'm hoping its just youthful bravado. If not Wesley seems delusional or maybe a little creepy.

There follows the touching story of how a young Picard lost his heart, literally.
Picard comes over all avuncular and advises Wesley to study history and art and not just focus on what's in his exams. On their return to the ship Picard announces that Wesley is allowed to continue studying on the Enterprise.

Randon Crewmember
Ensign Sonya Gomez appears again in this episode (after making her debut in the previous one). She and Geordi chat to Wesley about his exams and his upcoming trip with Picard. She advises that Picard knows about a lot of subjects and Wesley could really learn from him. Despite being new she knows how erudite Picard is.
Sonya is involved in the plan to rescue Geordi. She expresses concern for Geordi and asks questions, not that the answers really explained what was happening for me, though she seemed to know what was going on.

Security Breach
Before Geordi is beamed to the alien ship (just after I realised how the plot was going to go), Worf queries whether they should send their Chief Engineer to fix a strange ship. Riker treats Worf like he's being paranoid and obstructive. Worf is just doing his job, he rightly points out they don't know anything about the aliens, but yet again no one listens. Poor Worf. [Do not insert reference to Cassandra of Troy, Worf's name doesn't really sound like anything.]
The crew of the Enterprsie just love sending people into situations without adequate security, nearly as much as they love letting strangers wander around their ship and freely access their systems.

The End
Picard's return to the Bridge is met by applause. He barely acknowledges it then warns everyone that there will be no more talking about his brush with death.

* Seriously, Starfleet is terrible for families.