Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Three – Hauntings

Previous Chapter

Brandon caught himself before he ran over Harper, but unfortunately Cassie wasn’t quite as quick, slamming into his back with a muffled squeak. The car was in an odd state, with half the benches empty and the passengers dangerously packed into the other half. The engineers in the locomotive were probably working overtime keeping the car balanced and even with the rest of the train. Brandon had a half moment to wonder what was going on before he heard Harper whisper, “Captain Colbert…”

Everyone seemed to be looking at something in the middle of the car but try as he might Brandon couldn’t tell what it was. He was about to tap Harper on his shoulder when Cassie took his arm and pulled him back.

“There’s something there,” she whispered. “I can hear it.”

Harper walked towards the center of the car, suddenly looking less like a seasoned railway inspector – no, detective – and more like a sleepwalking child. Brandon cleared his throat. “Is everything alright, Detective?”

“What are you doing here?” Harper asked.

Brandon shifted from one foot to the other and back again, a deep discomfort working its way up his back and spreading through the roots of his muscles. He leaned over to his sister and whispered, “What do you hear?”

“It’s not clear,” she whispered back. “Something there is talking to him, but-”

“You always were one for following orders,” Harper said, acid creeping in to his voice.

“-but its voice is indistinct and-” she visibly flinched. Brandon began to reach for the yew around his waist but Cassie stopped him. “Whatever is over there it knows Mr. Harper. And doesn’t like him very much. I don’t know if we should interfere.”

“I don’t care,” Harper snapped. “You need to clear off this train and take your new general with you.”

The children shifted, murmuring in barely controlled fear. Harper’s eyes seemed to track with something standing up in the seat in front of him. Then Brandon heard it, some sort of echo at once distant and immediate, a wild and malicious laugh that swept through the train car and faded.

Cassie let out a breath and shook herself off. “It’s gone now.”

“What was it?”

“I couldn’t tell just from the voice,” Cassie said. “Some kind of spirit. Maybe just a ghost, maybe something more significant. Mr. Harper definitely recognized it as much as it recognized him.”

“Probably a ghost, then,” Brandon said, watching as the man in question moved further into the car to speak with the Hearth Keeper. “We should keep an eye on him, just to be sure he’s not consorting with anything sinister.”

“Can you tell me what happened, ma’am?” Harper asked, taking his hat from his head and holding it in both hands.

The Hearth Keeper, a matronly woman in her mid forties, made a helpless gesture, her expression one of concern more than fear. “The children saw it, didn’t they? Poor man with his belly cut open. He kept telling them the train was never coming down again. What kind of notion is that? Everything that flies falls in time, don’t it?”

“That’s my experience, ma’am,” Harper replied. “But you didn’t see the ghost?”

“Haven’t got the sight, not me. But I knew they saw something. They was too scared to be running a prank.” From the confused expression on his face it was clear Harper didn’t understand what had happened.

Brandon cleared his throat again and stepped forward. “It’s a matter of age,” he said. “Those who haven’t gone through puberty tend to be very attuned to ghosts and spirits. The sight starts to fade around the age of ten but it can take as long as a decade to fade. Most lose it in a year or so.”

Harper’s gaze sharpened and focused on him. “I didn’t know that. Thank you, Mr. Fairchild. But if that’s true, why did I see Captain Colbert? I’m well past twenty.”

“Since you knew the ghost’s name,” Brandon mused, “you may have a personal connection that attuned you to it. That can enhance your ability to perceive them.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps…” Harper’s attention wandered for a moment then he turned back to the woman and continued his conversation. Brandon glanced around and realized Cassie had moved over to the place the ghost had occupied.

He moved over and asked, “Anything out of the ordinary?”

“No,” she said. “Not even an echo of what was here. But its voice seemed to harmonize with the sound of the train so well, almost as if the soul was a part of it. Very odd.”

“Ever heard of anything like it?”

“No.” Cassie’s face told him that worried her, which was enough to worry him.

“The Hearth Keeper’s agreed to come with us in a moment, so long as her husband feels its safe here,” Roy announced, crossing to join them. “What was it you wanted to ask the girl about, Miss Cassandra?”

Cassie straightened up, looking a bit surprised at the intrusion. “Yes! I thought it was odd only one of the children in the compartment saw the ghost there and I wondered if the girl had latent talents as a river seer or stone singer. Those children looked old enough to have lost their sight.”

“Is.. she in danger?” Harper asked. “Her or the train?”

“The train isn’t, if that’s the case,” Cassie said. “But she’ll need a mentor to help her get her gifts under control. She could be attracting ghosts the children are seeing without even knowing it.”

“Then we’d better figure that out before anything else. We’ll go in a minute.” Harper crossed away to the other side of the car, stopping to talk to the Storm Watcher.

“Do you still think this is just a stray ghost?” Brandon asked, leaning in for a measure of privacy. “Or is it possible we got called in this direction because of a seer or singer?”

“It’s only one or two ghosts at the moment,” she replied. “But it is possible there’s a singer or seer on this train and that’s where the leading came from. We do resonate with each other, from time to time.”

The Hearth Keeper was approaching them so Brandon bit down on the other questions he wanted to ask, instead turning to her and saying, “Can we help you, ma’am?”

She gave the two of them a stern look. “Is it true that you can recognize someone with the Sight?”

“I know a test or two we could give,” she admitted. “But if they don’t reveal anything it doesn’t mean Olivia isn’t a river seer or something similar. Definitively disproving that requires a good deal of in depth exercises.”

The Keeper nodded, her expression turning shrewd. “It would be a good thing to know. Those kinds of talents could open many doors.”

Brandon kept the smirk off his face, but only barely. The Keeper’s calculating assessment strongly reminded him of his mother’s attitude when she learned of Cassie’s gift. She was a much more profane woman than the one before him but some things were universal, it seemed. Unfortunately that attitude glossed over the harsher realities of gifts like Cassie had. The Hearth Keeper had a few other questions for Cassie but Brandon tuned them out, instead keeping an eye on the rest of the car. The children were nervous and upset, but gradually calming down. However the undercurrent of fear remained.

“I think the children will be alright with your husband,” Harper said, returning from his conversation with the Watcher. “Let’s go and talk to the girl and see what you can see.”

A moment later the four of them were hustling back up the length of the train. Once they were again clear of the breezeway Harper asked, “If you’re wrong, and Olivia isn’t what attracted Captain Colbert’s ghost to this train, what could be the cause?”

“Ghosts aren’t spontaneous phenomenon, for the most part,” Brandon said. “They’re attracted to someone or something. Generally speaking, an untrained river seer can yank them from their normal path just by catching sight of them, stone singers can get attached to them by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Otherwise, they don’t generally leave their patterns of haunting.”

“So,” Harper mused, “is it possible Miss Cassandra picked up this ghost somehow? Said the wrong thing?”

Brandon found himself reappraising Harper for the third time in an hour. “No. She’s far too experienced to make a mistake like that.”

“I’ll trust your judgment. How likely is it that there’s some other seer or singer somewhere else on the train?”

“It’s not impossible,” Brandon admitted. “But it’s not likely.”

“How likely is it that Olivia just so happened to snag a ghost out of my past within a few hours of my boarding this train?”

“I have no idea, Mr. Harper. I imagine the odds are quite small.”

The shorter man let out a long suffering sigh. “Well, it’s all we’ve got to go on.”

The Hearth Keeper unlocked the door to the private compartment a minute later. The room was really meant for four, perhaps six if some of them were young children, so it ran out of room quickly. Brandon was in the process of easing himself into a narrow space on the bench beside Cassie when Harper’s hand landed heavily on his shoulder, squeezing uncomfortably. “Well,” Harper said, “get to it. I’ve something of my own to follow up on.”

And then he was moving forward again, heading towards their compartment with purpose. For a moment Brandon wondered what the detective was doing but Cassie gently pulled him the rest of the way into the compartment and his thoughts moved on. The girl, Olivia, had recovered with the strength of youth and now chatted happily with the Hearth Keeper.

“And you’re sure it wasn’t just a nightmare?” The Keeper was asking.

“It wasn’t, ma’am,” she said with great sincerity. “There was a man in the couch with no stomach. Like he just peeked up through the cushions!”

Beside him, Cassie began to hum quietly. For his part, Brandon assessed the children with a more critical eye than he had at first. Olivia looked the youngest, possible still young enough to see a ghost naturally. Clark appeared oldest, at least thirteen and probably fourteen, he would likely reach adulthood in a year or so.

But best to be certain. He cleared his throat and asked, “How old are the three of you?”

The tone of Cassie’s hum changed slightly.

“Eleven,” Olivia said.

“I’m fourteen,” Clark added, “And Annie’s almost thirteen.”

The redhead nodded her affirmation.

Brandon gestured in his sister’s direction. “And what do you see here?”

All three of them stared blankly for a moment. Finally Clark said, “A pretty lady?”

Annie gave him a forceful shove, prompting some purely juvenile outrage. Olivia’s attention turned to them and the Hearth Keeper intervened to break up the argument. Cassie stopped humming.

Once things calmed down the Hearth Keeper turned back, hands clasped, and said, “Well?”

“I’m afraid there’s no sign of either talent among them,” Cassie said. When the woman’s face fell she hastened to add, “But that may be for the best. The path to mastering either gift is very difficult. Still, there might be one among your children. Could we talk to those in the public compartment as well?”

“Of course. You three children had better come with us then.”

The Hearth Keeper bustled the lot of them back out into the passage and towards the back of the train. Brandon spared a moment to look for Roy Harper, but the detective was nowhere to be seen.

Run, Hide, Fight – A Well Made Film Is Its Own Reward

Run, Hide, Fight is a film written and directed by Kyle Rankin about Zoe Hull (Isabel May), a girl who gets caught up in a school shooting. 

I know what you’re thinking – “How did a film like that ever get made in Hollywood? Who thought it was a good idea?” 

To answer your questions, it didn’t and Dallas Sonnier. More to the point, films get made about every touchy subject imaginable. Or have you never heard of Schindler’s List? One of the jobs of an artist is to dig into the deepest, most uncomfortable aspects of our lives and help us reflect on them. Movies are made about rape, suicide and murder, perennial evils that touch many people you know and live with. A school shooting combines the last two and sensationalizes them, to be sure. But they’re not exempt from that artistic examination simply because they are sensational. 

Especially if the sensational nature of the event is one of the things the film wants us to reflect on. 

I’ll admit to being very, very skeptical of this film when I first heard of the premise. But, as it represents a new front in the ongoing disintegration of Hollywood (more on this in another post) I felt I should take a look at it, to see whether it was worthy of becoming a beachhead in the war against gatekeepers and censorship. As someone who watches movies critically – an occupational hazard – I find it hard to sit back and say, “I agree with this movie’s message so it’s okay.” 

First off, I’m not sure Run, Hide, Fight really has a message, per se, other than, perhaps, “Stick up for yourself.” 

But beyond that, I found that Run, Hide, Fight has a lot of technical and artistic merit to it. The premise of the film is simple. Zoe Hull’s mother recently died of cancer and she must reconcile her sense of loss and grief with her thoughts about the future. No, I didn’t expect this to be the premise of the film, either, but there it is. Run, Hide, Fight is as much about Zoe and her grief as it is about the physical threat she faces from Tristan and his merry band of murderers. As it turns out, Zoe needs to learn how to put aside her grief and move forward before she can help anyone in her school during their darkest hours. 

This emotional conflict really works every time it comes up in the film, due in large part to strong performances by May and Rahda Mitchell, who portrays Zoe’s mother, Jennifer. Zoe clearly has some level of survivor’s guilt and she’s not getting much help from her father, Todd (Thomas Jane), an ex-Special Forces soldier and generally stoic individual. Rather than put her in therapy or try and help her through the grieving process himself, Todd teaches Zoe to hunt. 

That brings us to the other half of Run, Hide, Fight, the part where bad things happen. 

I actually found the buildup to Zoe’s fateful day at school really effective. It shows us the many layers of the morning in judicious, well timed cuts, taking us from Zoe’s morning routine to various events happening around town, events carefully calculated to slow police response to upcoming events. Finally, Zoe gets to school, struggles through the morning and breaks for lunch. She’s in the rest room when four deranged students lead by Tristan Voy (Eli Brown) drive a van into the cafeteria and everything goes south. 

This physical conflict pleases me on many levels. First, the mechanics of it are well thought out. From the build up through the morning to Tristan’s final exit from the cafeteria, every decision made by Zoe, Tristan, the teachers and law enforcement is well justified by the narrative, the characters, the situation and some measure of good sense (or bad sense in the case of the villains). Beyond that, it lets us see Zoe achieve different kinds of victories over the villains. She wins a physical victory in a direct confrontation, a moral victory when she convinces one of the people involved to give up on the murder plot and a victory of faith when she carries on in the face of seeming defeat. Finally, the whole situation is portrayed without much melodrama. Certainly there’s a lot of emotion in the situation and we get a good look at a good deal of it. But it’s never rubbed in our face nor does it overstay its welcome. This aspect of the film could have gone very badly. But it was handled quite well, for the most part. 

We’ll get to the part that wasn’t in a sec. 

But I also want to praise the portrayal of Tristan. Brown delivers a masterful performance, oozing a creepy kind of charisma as he manipulates and intimidates, taunts and pontificates his way through his plot. No attempt is made to turn him into a victim of circumstance or a martyr for some kind of cause he ultimately betrays by his foolish actions. Tristan sees the world as a numbers game. But it isn’t money that matters to him. It’s prestige, it’s attention, it’s clout. Tristan is young, savvy and knows his social media. He’s here to bring about a landmark shift, to put his mark on history in ways no one else will ever be able to touch. His name will be immortal. He’s changing everything and the revolution will be televised

Like all great villains, his own character destroys him. He goes from strutting for the cellphone cameras that broadcast his rants on every platform imaginable to juggling his own phones as he tries to keep in touch with his minions, all the while giving Zoe a perfect window into everything he’s doing. Ultimately that hubris gives Zoe the opportunity to overwhelm the legend he’s aiming to build and replace it with her own. This is the kind of carefully calculated poetic justice that I’ve found sadly lacking in entertainment of late. I definitely savored the moment when it came. 

Run, Hide, Fight is not a perfect movie. There are a lot of tiny flaws in it, but only one that I found really egregious. That was the final resolution. In many ways the film slightly overstays its welcome, tacking on about five minutes of extra runtime that attempt to bookend the story but wind up feeling forced and melodramatic. In addition, they create one major plot issue I just can’t overlook, a moment of painful incompetence on the part of the police that is particularly disappointing given how carefully all the other decisions by authority figures are handled.  

I respect what the film is trying to do with this sequence. Zoe is taking away the last sliver of hope Tristan had of succeeding at some part of his plan, cementing a total victory and confirming that she is, in fact, a survivor in control of her own future once again. I just don’t think the last few minutes of the film succeed on either a mechanical or emotional level. That’s a pretty big shortcoming in my book, but not enough of one to outweigh the very competent work the film does with the rest of its run time. If you enjoy good films that combine action with deep emotional moments, and you can look past the fact that the backdrop for the action is a school shooting, I would strongly recommend watching Run, Hide, Fight. 

But because Hollywood wouldn’t touch this movie with a 20ft pole you can only watch it streaming on somewhat controversial conservative media site The Daily Wire. We’re back to the whole bit about beachheads against Hollywood again. I think that’s something to look at next week. See you then. 


Reminder that I have an ongoing comic crowdfunding project for Hexwood: Dust and Ashes, a weird western comic set in the same world as Firespinner. Give it a look here:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Ori and the Specters in the Dark

Metroid was a platforming adventure game for the Nintendo Entertainment System that pioneered a genre. Games in that family followed a pretty straightforward formula – a lone hero journeys through a vast world filled with hazards and obstacles with no clearly defined “level breaks” and no set path. The genre also focuses entirely on a 2D side scrolling graphical presentation. The player is free to explore and overcome obstacles using their own wits, observation skills and the various movement mechanics, backtracking to old areas of the world map as new forms of movement mechanics become available, and finally clearing the game. 

The Metroid franchise added a heavy dose of combat to these games, as did successors like Castlevania, but other games in the genre like Cave Story and Owlboy greatly reduce the importance of direct confrontation as a part of the gameplay, focusing more on exploration and fun movement mechanics like jumping, rolling, swinging and flying. As someone who’s first video game was Super Mario Brothers, the Metroid (or Metroidvania or Castleroid) genre holds a special place in my heart. When I first saw the trailer for Ori in the Blind Forest I suspected I was looking at a game I would really enjoy. 

Unfortunately for me, I don’t have a whole lot of time for games these days. I have a lot of things I want to do and not a lot of time to do them in, and at the end of the day the simple upsides of a video game, teaching coordination, focus, and basic puzzle solving, are things that have few returns left for me. I can only justify them as stress relief and there are other forms of entertainment I enjoy just as much so… not a lot of gaming happens in my typical week. When Blind Forest came out in 2016 I never got around to it. Then Studio Moon released Ori and the Will of the Wisps in 2020 and the chorus of high praise the game received caught my attention. I was able to pick up both games for the price of one over Christmas and finally got around to finishing them this spring. 

I was right to wait. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a very halfbaked game. It has some of the charm of the Metroid genre, with a big, beautiful map full of dangers and horrors around every corner, tons of neat things to find and some very satisfying takes on jumping and dashing. However the game also suffers from very clunky takes on the air jump, a genre staple, and climbing. It’s also got a very bizarre save system, where you can save most anywhere you want except the times when it really matters and you have a save rationing system that runs on the energy resource, which sounds like you’d have to be careful how you use it except saving is the only thing you really spend energy on and I never felt like I was in danger of running out. Worse, with most of the advanced movement abilities being context depended I frequently found myself sticking to a wall when I wanted to drift slowly in the air. 

On top of that, Blind Forest has extremely lackluster combat, leaning more to the Owlboy end of the spectrum in terms of dealing with enemies while crossing the map. There are no boss battles and no notable standouts among the generic monsters that populate Ori’s world. The game tries to make up for this by ending each major chapter of the game with a frantic chases or hectic escapes through a section of the game world where small mistakes cost the player dearly. These sections are a lot of fun at first, coming off as creative and harrowing, but they get a little stale by the end with nothing to contrast them against. Worse, as the more advanced powers like wall running and “bashing” are introduced the context controls can sometimes slip you up through no fault of your own, leaving you to restart an entire chase sequence from the beginning. There are no places to set check points in these sprinting sections and they only get longer as things go on. The last two or three of these were incredibly frustrating. 

But I stuck with Blind Forest because Moon Studios achieved a triumph of storytelling in their game. 

Now video games in general and Metroid style games in particular are a poor storytelling medium. They need to focus more on the feel of playing them than on the story and the narrative almost always suffers for this. But the Ori franchise escapes this curse through two savvy choices. First, they keep the story very simple. Second, they tell it entirely visually. 

Ori in the Blind Forest is a tale about an orphaned spirit named Ori who must restore the damage done to its home forest and the Spirit Tree that created it by undoing the decay caused by the giant owl, Kuro. Simple and to the point. The game uses short cutscenes to introduce and give insight into our main characters, but it also uses the foreground and background of the game to build them up over time. Gumo is the first example of this, his long, gangly limbs coming into view in the out of focus foreground of early areas, his gleaming yellow eyes shining in the background elsewhere. And, once we figure out Gumo and make our peace with him there’s still the matter of Kuro, who begins as a pair of wings whooshing past in the distance and evolves into a menacing force of nature who stalks Ori through the skies, swamps and mountains of the game’s second half. 

What’s more, Kuro reaches the full extent of a great villain, her wrath at Ori and the spirits driving her to more and more extreme actions that eventually threaten the very thing she sought to protect. Kuro perishes not in a direct confrontation with Ori but rather when she returns the light she stole to the Spirit Tree to end the peril that threatens her last egg. This is not the kind of thing that happens in most video games, which seek to give players the satisfaction of overcoming their antagonist in the game itself. And I’ll admit, not having a direct part to play in Kuro’s downfall was a bit annoying to me, as a player, even though I found it very satisfying as the audience. 

However, when I switched off Blind Forest I seriously considered not continuing with Will of the Wisps. The mechanics in Blind Forest were pretty mediocre, and represent by far the biggest part of the game. Sure, the presentation of the story in the game was excellent but I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest another six to ten hours in a game if 95% of that time was going to be aggressively meh. I decided I would give Will of the Wisps fifteen minutes to win me over. 

Within ten I had Ori running through a forest with a torch in hand, the Howler chasing me under logs and over stones in a familiar and frantic chase sequence that ended with something quite new – a boss battle, and a very satisfying one. Will of the Wisps had won me over. In fact, Will of the Wisps feels like the full, complete version of Blind Forest, possibly a complete realization of what Moon Studios had hoped for. The controls are tighter and there’s much less chance of context dependency costing you a fight or a running sequence, although it can still happen. 

There’s also much more control over what Ori can do – players get a slew of abilities from a glowing sword and bow to a nimbus of light and an explosive superjump, all of which can be swapped in and out of your primary action buttons at will. Energy is no longer part of the save system but rather powers most of Ori’s high powered attacks, making rationing energy pretty important for most of the game (though by the end that was much less important). Rather than requiring active saving the game autosaves your progress at fixed waypoints, which are quite plentiful and actually exist in the middle of some of the longer escape sequences. Everything about playing the game is tighter, more responsive and more intuitive. 

And nothing about the story in Will of the Wisps suffers for it. Ori and its new friend, Ku, find themselves stranded in Niwen, another land who’s Spirit Tree has gone dark and now suffers from decay. But Ori and Ku are quickly separated and Ori must find and save its friend before evil befalls her. This story is again set up and told through heartfelt cutscenes. But now, more than ever, evil pursues you through the shadows of the world. 

From the moment the Howler’s many eyes fixed on Ori during the introduction I knew Moon Studios had taken the lessons of Kuro and expanded on them. Almost every area of Niwen has some kind of ominous portent hidden in the middle distance, visible from most places as you explore. The predatory grace of the Howler, undulating through the forests. The twitching legs of Mora poking around the trunks of the Mouldwood. The alien specter of Shriek stalking the Silent Woods. The decay of Niwen is everywhere in evidence. 

But it’s not just the twisted and evil we see in this game. There’s also Baur, slumbering as he waits for spring, and the massive wheels of the Wellspring, caked with grime and sludge at first, then slowly turning to new life and purpose as you cleanse them and set them to motion again, portents of the good you can do and are doing as you work to find and save your friend. The story of Will of the Wisps is the obvious continuation of Blind Forest, but that’s really a mark in its favor. In Blind Forest Ori is young and a bit naïve, and too green to directly confront the massive dangers of the world. 

In Will of the Wisps that changes. Ori has grown up, it has an adopted younger sister to look out for, and it’s much more confident and skilled. Ori is a torch bearer, both literally (however briefly) and figuratively, relighting the land of Niwen and showing its inhabitants kindness and compassion even as the search for Ku consumes most of its attention. In the end, when Ori unites with the Will of the Wisps, we see how far the character has come and it’s an incredibly satisfying experience. 

So on the whole, while I did find navigating the first half of the story intensely frustrating at times, I’m not sorry I went on the journey with the little light spirit. Ori’s saga was fun, heartfelt and even moving. It harkened back to good memories from the past and left the door open a crack for future things. And it reminded us that even the most towering specters of the dark cannot prevail against even a spark of light, a message that rings true no matter what.


A reminder that I am still running a crowdfunder for my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes. Check out the Indiegogo for more details on the story and preview pages!

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Hexwood: Dust and Ashes – A Foray into Different Mediums

Hello folks! This post is coming to you a bit off schedule, I know. Back before I started on Firespinner I mentioned my comic project, Hexwood: Dust and Ashes and said I would be bringing you more on that subject in due time. Well, the time is now! The Indiegogo for Hexwood is now live and ready for your consideration. Curious? Check out this short trailer I put together for the campaign!

Here’s a few more details: Hexwood is a comic with 85 pages of story, illustrated in black and white in a painterly style. It tells a complete story, although one with plenty of promises of things to come. It’s set in an alternate Earth with a much different history and metaphysic than ours, but more details on that are included in the worldbuilding post. (Haven’t read it? Seriously, check it out!)

We follow the sheriff of the town of Hexwood as he investigates the murder of a local miner and slowly gets pulled into a much deeper and darker plot. We meet fun characters, escape surprising situations and get embroiled in some fantastical action along the way. If you read Firespinner and were intrigued by the world, you just love weird westerns in general or you love comics please consider supporting the book! You can find the campaign by following this link:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/hexwood-dust-and-ashes/x/26322352#/

Spy x Family – Too Full to Work, Yet It Does

Tatsuya Endo’s Spy x Family is a fascinating stew of ideas, crammed into one place in a dizzying Jenga tower of contradictions and potential. The basic premise is thus – a superspy, codenamed Twilight, cover identity Loid Forger, must contribute to maintaining the balance of power during a cold war in a city clearly inspired by Berlin in the 1950s. His current assignment is to get close to the reclusive Minister Desmond by infiltrating his son Damian’s prestigious private school. 

Rather than join the staff, Twilight rapidly builds a family from scratch, creating a paper marriage with a woman named Yor Briar and adopting a girl the same age as Damian Desmond. Anya, Loid’s adopted daughter, will be tutored until she has excellent grades and the Forger family is invited to attend school social functions with the Desmonds. Convoluted? Sure. But we’re just getting started. 

You see, Loid has accidentally married the Queen of Thorns, who was approaching thirty and single and thought that getting married would decrease her risk of being discovered as Berlint’s most dangerous assassin. Yor has also married Loid as part of a cover, although for far less noble purposes than upholding the fragile peace between major world governments. Lots of potential dramatic tension there, as they could wind up working many of the same situations but on opposite sides, then come home after and not even realize they’d been in conflict. A bit cliché? Sure. But it could be executed well, provided nothing else comes- 

Oh. I forgot. Anya is a six year old with telepathic powers, the result of clandestine experiments performed on her before she escaped from captivity. This means she knows both of her adoptive parents secrets, even as the adults hide them from her and each other. She is also the only one capable of understanding the visions of the household pet, Bond, who is a dog that can see the future. 

There is so much going on in this family it seems like the whole thing should just come apart. However, Endo’s firm sense of comedy, clean art and heartwarming touch take these ingredients and blend them into something far beyond the sum of their parts. There’s a strong desire in some storytellers, myself included, to look at the elements of a story and allow them to take over. The spy and the assassin must be in conflict. The psychic girl must be burdened by knowledge. The struggle between spy mission and family integrity must be ever present. But Endo does something a little different, allowing the two elements named in the title of his work – spycraft and family – to orbit one another in a constant dance, informing each other but never fully overriding each other. Everything else, the weird powers, the geopolitical conflict, the school drama, all boils down to fodder to emphasize the symbiotic relationship between the Folgers as a family and their secret lives. 

At the heart of the story is Twilight, a man who works for world peace as an ideal but never had any stake in it himself. He’s alone and always has been. But in striving to create something to benefit the world he finds the people he needs to complete himself. In many ways the Forger family, although originally a forgery, become a united family, dedicated to protecting one another and, at the same time, protecting the peace of the world. It’s a heartwarming tale about how doing small things is a necessary building block towards greater things, and how no truly great thing is done alone. 

It’s also funny, full of wacky characters and situational hijinks. Anya is one of the best written young child characters I’ve seen since Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes. Loid and Yor are both full of contrasting strengths and weaknesses that can be both humorous and endearing. Berlint itself is a nostalgic look at a world of romantic secrets and adventures that never really existed, but we all kind of wish had. By the same token, by all rights Loid’s family of secrets should inevitably end with broken hearts and broken lives. But even so, based on everything I’ve seen, I’m almost certain everything will turn out all right in the end. 

Stargate SG-1 – A Retrospective

When I was in college the most discussed scifi series was Stargate SG-1. Based on a film that spun into a franchise, Stargate was a great intersection of conspiracy theory and old school science fiction. It was also on cable. My family never subscribed to cable, so while I heard a lot about Stargate back in the day I never watched it. Then there was Netflix. 

Stargate SG-1 ran for ten season. Ten seasons. That is a lot of TV. Catching up on it all was a bit of an endeavor and I’ll confess I wasn’t always paying the strictest attention to it, playing it on my tablet while I was cooking dinner or sketching. As such I can’t really say I know it as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, where I’ve watched most of the episodes more than once and discussed with my family on a semi regular basis. That said, I have watched it all over the course of the last year or so and I have thoughts. Many thoughts. 

Let’s start with a quick overview of what the premise of the Stargate franchise is. 

Archaeologists discover a giant ring with odd symbols on it near the pyramids at Giza in the 1920s. In the 1990s archaeologist Daniel Jackson decodes the symbols and concludes the ring is a Stargate, a piece of alien technology that creates stable wormholes between one another. By “dialing” a set of seven symbols on the gate and pumping electricity (lots and lots of electricity) into it humanity can travel to other worlds and explore space. 

Great stuff. It unites longstanding conspiracy theories about ancient aliens and pyramids with a solid scifi premise into an engine for perpetual scifi adventure. SG-1 featured a quartet of very solid central characters, a stellar recurring cast and some very memorable villains. On top of that, while I’m not sure how solid any of the science on the show was, the mechanics of the universe are clear, easy to understand and incredibly consistent. 

One of the central elements of SG-1 is how far behind Earth is, technologically speaking, compared to the people who build wormhole gates and starships. The Stargate allows them to poke around the galaxy, find friendlies and slowly collect technology to even the score. While it takes a while for them to acquire significant tech, SG-1 does slowly build up an arsenal of fancy alien gadgets, eventually giving way to starships and hyperdrives of their own. 

Watching the slowly expanding capacities of the Stargate team is one of the great pleasures of the show, and the writers clearly enjoyed it too. While they never allow technology to become a magic “out” from bad situations; there’s very few to no cases where they “forget” about a piece of technology that could have solved a problem for them. There is one case where every chance they have to acquire a useful device fails for one reason or another, but that’s because the tech in question made people incredibly difficult to kill, which would remove a lot of the narrative stakes. Eventually healing sarcophagi were revealed to drive humans insane, effectively ending their utility to the cast and allowing the focus to fall elsewhere. 

Of course, while the consistency of the mechanics is great that’s only part of the equation, the people who inhabit stories need to be entertaining as well. Here, too, SG-1 delivers. While the most entertaining character in the cast is doubtless the team lead, Col. Jack O’Neil, and the character I most resemble was probably Dr. Daniel Jackson, my personal favorite was Teal’c. The stoic warrior alien is a trope that is well mined, but Christopher Judge brings a charisma to him that lends a tired trope a depth and nuance found in few others of his stripe. We see Teal’c as a father and a son, a leader and a follower, a dependable hero and a wounded warrior. Part of this is facilitated by the length of time spent developing him, part of it is Judge’s excellent instincts as a performer, relying on physical acting as much as voice and expression to convey his character’s thoughts. 

Major, later Lt. Col, Samantha Carter rounds out the team, and is the show’s science guru. Like Teal’c, Sam, Jack and Daniel are all stock tropes given life and considerable depth by the skill and talent of their actors and the considerable time spent developing them. While Richard Dean Anderson left the show in the eighth season, and Jack wound up replaced with Cameron Mitchell for the last two seasons, O’Neil would serve as the heart of the show for as long as he remained with it and was probably the best developed character in the cast, with Dr. Jackson coming second and Sam and Teal’c tied for third. All are well rendered and their characters remain consistent as established over the course of the show, with any major shifts in personality well choreographed and expounded on over the show’s run. 

In addition to a well handled central cast, a number of fantastic supporting characters give flavor to much of the show’s run, with Doctor Janet Frasier and General George Hammond as standouts, along with the villains Apophis and Anubis. But before we get to the latter two, let’s talk about the structure of a Stargate season. 

One of the great challenges of long form storytelling in a medium such as television is that episodes are released over time and need to be self-contained to some degree. On the other hand, you need some unifying threads to keep people coming back over time. Some shows function on a Netflix model, where every episode pours over into the next, which is fine but doesn’t work well on a weekly broadcasting schedule. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Deep Space Nine model, where almost every episode is a self-contained story with ties to a greater whole. Stargate SG-1 is very much in the DS9 model, although it executes on it with more skill than any other take on that model I’ve seen, including DS9 itself. 

Every season of SG-1 follows a basic formula. The first episode pulls together the loose threads from the proceeding season or, in the case of the first season, the movie. Near the end of that episode or the beginning of the second episode at the latest the season’s primary antagonist is introduced. Over the course of the next ten episodes Stargate Command collects intel on the antagonist and the technological, biological and philosophical threads of the conflict are established. Secondary conflicts on Earth are also established, usually from other elements of the government trying to move in on the Stargate program. After these threads are set up serious skirmishes build over a series of four to six episodes until matters come to a head and the season ends with two to four episodes revolving around a significant confrontation that sets up the first episode of the next season. 

While the formula is clear it works for a number of reasons. First and foremost, SG-1 doesn’t always win at the end of a season, something that makes these climactic confrontations surprisingly nail biting. Beyond that, they seriously consider the outcomes of more than just technology (which, as I said before, they think about more thoroughly than many other scifi properties). They also consider the societal implications of the alien cultures and technology they encounter. Many episodes I watched felt eerily similar to actual problems we struggle with today, problems that SG-1 handles with far more grace than we have I’m sad to say. 

But another thing that makes this formula work is the villains. For the most part. Apophis is a classic pulp villain, chewing scenery and never quite staying as dead as you’d like. Anubis is far more subtle, manipulating the many egos around him into a dance that always manages to favor him in ways that are impressive to watch. The Y’shen are the mundane face of evil, quietly destroying everything they touch all while wrapped in a seemingly benign and charitable shroud. The Replicators are a slightly on the nose take on gluttony and overindulgence. 

These were all strong villains, give or take the Replicators, but towards the end of the series it felt like the writers were running out of steam. The Ori felt like a bad attempt to clone the conflict created by Guaold like Apophis. The Ori have many of the same dynamics with their followers as the Guaold had with the Jaffa and I would’ve liked to see a new take on this dynamic as late in the series as they were introduced. 

It would’ve been nice to have a degree of uncertainty added to the mix. The Guaold were pulpy, scenery chewing villains. The Ori were immaterial beings, much like their opposites, the Ancients, and there was little to no objective way to measure their claims about each other and it would have been nice if the conflict between them was less straight forward, to reflect the less tangible nature of the evils at work. It was a disappointing finish to a show that handled most of its villains, big and small, with deftness and skill. 

All in all, Stargate SG-1 was a great show that pushed episodic, weekly storytelling about as far as it could go before binge watching became a phenomenon. It owes a lot to a dedicated writer’s room, who really put in the work to keep things consistent, good casting and actors who believed in the project enough to stay with it for years at a time. I now understand why so many people were so heavily invested in it when it was airing. If you’re looking for a scifi show to watch that takes its characters and cultures as seriously as Star Trek but plays with its toys like Star Wars, Stargate SG-1 might be the thing for you.