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December 18th 2016
Do you remember how I used to write an annual quiz about my blog, to see how much attention you've all been paying? Yes? No? Well, it's back, baby. Test yourself to see how much of it you committed to memory, and how much you skimmed because it looked a bit dull. Best of luck. Huge prizes available! (Huge prizes not available).



December 24th 2016
So, prequels, eh?
Time was, I'd put a bit of work into an introduction on this thing, but today my heart isn't really in it.
I recently saw Rogue One (if you haven't heard it yet, let me point you towards the podcast I recorded with James Lee on that very topic, a mere 10 years since we shared a radio show), and one of the things I forgot to mention was the possibility that it's the best prequel ever made. It is helped, in many respects, by the fact that there aren't many prequels around, and the ones that are around tend not to be great.
This blog is being written without much forethought, but it's not impossible that I'll get to a top ten list by the end of it. People like lists, you know. Well, I do, anyway. Remember that Bob Dylan one? Good times. Anyways, let's get our definitions sorted out: a prequel is something that comes afterwards but is set before. Specifically, I'm not counting the Hobbit book as a prequel to Lord of the Rings, because it isn't one. Although an argument could be made for the Hobbit films being prequels. Actually, I only ever saw the first one of those, and I didn't like it.
And the less said about the Star Wars prequel trilogy, the better. Listen, Episode III is pretty good. But, basically, the rest of the trilogy simply demonstrated that George Lucas has forgotten what made Star Wars good in the first place: the strength was in the characters and the mythos, not the gymnastics and the range of lightsabres on offer. Thankfully, Lucas is no longer really involved in Star Wars.
Speaking of, though, the second Indiana Jones film is a prequel. Even though you can probably watch it without really realising that fact. I've never been the biggest Indy fan - it's fine, but it all gets a bit silly - and Temple of Doom is comfortably the worst of the original trilogy, so I'm not sure it's making a strong case for prequels, but there it is. It'll probably make my top ten on the basis that I've realised I've not seen or read many.
In fact, let's get some out of the way because I've not seen them. The TV series Endeavour (Morse), Rock and Chips (Only Fools and Horses), Bates Motel (Psycho) & Gotham (Batman) have all mined the backstories of the classics without me having ever watched more than a few seconds of them. Similarly, I've never seen Prometheus (prequel to Alien) or read Wide Sargasso Sea (which, Simon assures me, is a prequel to Jane Eyre). I'm starting to wonder why I'm writing this blog post. Ah well, I'm in it now.
I've also not read Henry V or any of the Henry IVs, which Wikipedia tells me are prequels to the Henry VIs. Well, I guess. Good work, Shakespeare.
On the other hand, I have watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which apparently is a prequel to the other two films in the Dollars trilogy, and perhaps this explains why I didn't have a clue what was going on the entire time. I mean, Clint Eastwood was there, and about a dozen indistinguishable men in moustaches, and no one says anything for the first 40 minutes or so, and the last scene with the Mexican stand-off is great. But I didn't really follow the plot, or who anyone - except Clint Eastwood - was, or why the film is so beloved. Ah well.
You know what film series has a bunch of prequels? X-Men. And, while some of them are bad - Origins: Wolverine is a mess, and Apocalypse was very disappointing - First Class was very good indeed. Probably my favourite prequel, actually (spoilers). It provided an interesting insight into the lead characters Charles Xavier & Erik Lehnsherr, gave more back-story for other notable characters like Mystique & Beast, and was a good story in its own right. However, it - and other X-Men films - absolutely tore up the timeline and introduced a number of inconsistencies.
That's one of the problems with prequels, of course. You're either a bit hamstrung by what had come before, or you anger the fans by chucking it out the window. You can solve the problem, in sci-fi, by basically blaming everything on there being different timelines - that's what Bryan Singer & the X-Men team have essentially done, and it was the trick used in the Star Trek reboot - but even the most carefully-laid plotlines will probably contain inconsistencies. Rogue One was notable for solving a few plot holes rather than creating new ones, but I'm sure there are YouTube videos out there pointing out issues that I've let skate over me.
There are bigger problems with prequels, though. One of those is the need by some writers / directors to introduce deep meaning into things that really didn't need it. So, X-Men: Apocalypse shows how Charles Xavier became bald because of some weird thing that Apocalypse did (I forget the details); the Star Wars prequels show you that Darth Vader was the guy who created C-3PO. There's simply no need for that kind of thing, and while there are no doubt times where it adds weight and colour to a story, more often the suggestion that everything links together - destiny and what-have-you - is more of a weakness than a strength. For example, the next Alien film apparently features the mother of Sigourney Weaver's character, suggesting that the latter was always destined to fight aliens. What's the point of that?
The other stumbling block for prequels is when they want to show us things that we'd have been better off just imagining. Obi-Wan telling Luke that he'd fought alongside Anakin in the clone wars painted a much better picture of their relationship than we got from seeing Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christiansen act it out. Similarly, I'm not sure anyone watching The Wizard of Oz ever wondered how the Wicked Witch became green, but Oz: The Great and Powerful tells that story (saved, almost, by a strong performance from Mila Kunis). Actually, a lot of people love Wicked - another Oz prequel, which I haven't yet seen - so I guess it can work. But when the Han Solo prequel film is made, I don't want to see how he got his jacket, or discover that he was responsible for Yoda having a limp.
Another pretty great prequel this year was Fantastic Beasts. And it almost entirely avoided adding back-story to the Harry Potter books / films we already know; it remains to be seen how well the series handle Dumbledore, more Grindelwald, and whichever other existing characters make prequel appearances. And, perversely, I would be disappointed if we don't get to learn more about the likes of McGonagall, Aberforth Dumbledore or even Mad-Eye Moody. I guess that's the tricky line that prequels have to walk.
Let's finish with some books. The Magician's Nephew is a prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and does a great job in developing the Narnia mythos (including the creation of Narnia, and the introduction of Aslan) while expanding the story into wider realms. And there are some fun hints about minor characters who'll pop up later. Then, finally, there's New Spring, a prequel set very shortly before the events of the Wheel of Time. It's a good 'un, allowing you to see a different side to key characters from the series, explaining back-story without going over the top.
Oh, and Monsters University is good fun.
After all that, I don't think I will do a top ten. This has, as you can probably tell, not been as well-planned as some of my other entries here. I'll let you into a secret: it's Christmas Eve, and we're eating our main Christmas meal fairly shortly, and I wanted something to do to pass the time. It was either write this, or spend more time on Sporcle quizzes. Possibly I made the wrong call.
Merry Christmas!

December 30th 2016
If you had asked me a short while ago what my favourite new TV show of 2016 would be, I wouldn't have expected that it would turn out to be Gilmore Girls. Partly because it's not a new show - it first aired from 2000-07 - but, thanks to the wonder of Netflix, it's new to me. And I'm hooked.

Lorelai Gilmore

Gilmore Girls, if you've not seen it, is a show about a single mother and her teenage daughter living in small-town America. Which is to say that it's about people with whom I have basically no common experiences (apart from, y'know, speaking English and being white). Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel play the two leads, Lorelai & Rory Gilmore respectively, and are both outstanding. I had seen Lauren Graham in a few things before - possibly exclusively because Matthew Perry was in them; the two are apparently good friends and she has turned up alongside him in Studio 60, Go On, Birds of America & The Odd Couple (see this tweet) - but these appearances were fairly slight. Seeing what she can do with her best-known character has been relevatory.
So, what's so great about the show, given that I shouldn't really be able to relate to the characters at all (as well as the main two, the cast includes a French concierge, a Korean schoolgirl, a chef - played by Melissa McCarthy - and Lorelai's upper-class parents)? Well, it's funny, for starters. It's not the straight-out comedy that I'd thought it was - indeed, towards the end of its original run in 2007 I caught a clip on TV and rejected the show on the grounds that there was nothing in it to laugh about - but it has a wry sense of humour about it that I enjoy. It sometimes employs rat-a-tat dialogue in a manner not disimilar to some of Aaron Sorkin's work (speaking fast is something the show is apparently renowned for; I'm only ten episodes in and there are only glimpses of that so far, so perhaps it's built upon later). But the greatest - and most noticeable - thing about the show is its heart.
Watching the show, I'm reminded a little of Party of Five, and at first I was a bit puzzled as to why. I mean, Party of Five was famously dramatic and tragic - the basic premise was a family of orphans growing up together, and along the way there was cancer, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, depression, and more hospital visits than you can shake a stick at - whereas part of the beauty of Gilmore Girls is how understated it is (I say this; the last couple of episodes have included a blazing row and a rush to hospital; I hope that's not a sign of things to come). But the key link between Party of Five and Gilmore Girls is that heart: the love the characters have for each other; the sense of a mutual history; the unbreakable us-against-the-world family relationships that always, eventually, prevail.
Oh, and they were both filmed around the same time, so a lot of the hairstyles are the same.

Lorelai & Rory Gilmore

The difficulty in starting to watch a show that first aired 16 years ago is that spoilers are potentially everywhere. Things as innocuous as seeing the DVD cover from a later season could ruin whole plotlines for me. This phenomenon, in fact, is known as Where's-Rob-Lowe-On-The-Cover-Of-West-Wing-Season-Five syndrome. So, I'll keep my head as buried as I can, and when I need to do things like find out the correct spelling of Alexis Bledel's name, as I did while writing this, I'll check the most recent Netflix episode I watched rather than risking a visit to IMDb. That way I'll be able to enjoy all the show's seasons (I don't dare check how many), and when those are done I'll be able to watch this year's return to the show (I don't dare check what it's called), a Netflix-exclusive arc of four episodes that may yet pave the way for more. If it's kept up the quality of the first ten episodes of season one, I can only hope so.
Oh, one more thing. The theme song is 'Where You Lead' by Carole King - re-recorded especially for the show as a duet with her daughter - and, if you encounter me any time soon, you'll probably find me singing it. Or 'You've Got a Friend', a similar song by the same artist. Just thought I'd warn you.

what was I listening to?
Exile on Main St. - The Rolling Stones
what was I reading?
Born to Run - Bruce Springsteen
what was I watching?
Rogue One
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