The Shannara Chronicles: The Delight of Bad Television

We’ve been watching The Shannara Chronicles. (We only watch series on DVD, so we’re still working our way through season 1). It’s some of the worst television I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t wait to see more.

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One trailer park elf, one spoiled princess, and one edgy ex-bandit, coming right up. Image via IMDb.

Make no mistake, The Shannara Chronicles is terrible. The plot is a meandering soap opera mashed together from two parts Tolkien (a band of hobbits teenagers, occasionally aided by a grumpy wizard druid, must carry the magical ring seed to a distant place through a strange wilderness in order to save the world from a dark lord warlock who mostly just chills out in his tower henge being all evil and stuff) and one part Hunger Games (a tedious teenage love triangle between one girl half-elf boy and two boys girls—one rugged, the other sophisticated—in a vaguely-defined post-apocalyptic North America). Episode scripts are written Mad-Lib style: Dire warning about [peril] goes unheeded, recurring bandit guy threatens to [do something awful], someone explains [plot point] to the confused half-elf dude, princess has to be saved from [unheeded peril].

Yet despite its flaws, Shannara Chronicles manages the trick that most bad television doesn’t: to be both bad and enjoyable. More remarkably, it has managed this feat while remaining convinced of its own seriousness, instead of embracing its camp absurdity like most other beloved bad SFF shows, from Batman to Xena.

The scenery, the design, there are beautiful things under the layers of bad storytelling. Image via IMDb.
There are beautiful things under the layers of bad storytelling. Image via IMDb.

It’s hard to explain why I enjoy Shannara. Taste, of course, is subjective: one viewer’s guilty pleasure is another’s eye-roll marathon. I think there are three things about it that work for me:

  1. The diamonds among the dross. Shannara is a kiwi production and I watch it in much the same spirit that I watch Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies: for the moments of beauty buried in the failings of concept and writing. The visual design is inventive and sometimes startling. Among the actors there are some shining stars like John Rhys Davies, Jed Brophy, and Manu Bennett improving the lackluster scripts with their performances. Plus New Zealand scenery is always worth seeing.
  2. We’re starved for good fantasy. I like classic fantasy. I like it better when it’s done well, but in the absence of that (or when showrunners think that doing fantasy well means adding as much torture, rape, and pointless death as possible), I’ll take it done badly. Plus, it’s refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic story in which the post-apocalypse is a quaint side note to the plot rather than a weight around its neck.
  3. The straight line is funnier than the joke. Comedy is well and good, but sometimes the best laughs come from people who don’t know they’re funny, and if the creators of Shannara know how funny they’re being, they aren’t letting on. I enjoy groaning at the teenage drama, the princess who has to be saved from something once an episode, the elite Elven soldiers who get themselves clobbered by bandits in under ten seconds, and the rest of the show even more when there isn’t a wisecracking sidekick poking me in the ribs and saying Hey, didja see what we did there? Huh? Huh?
Because this is totally how you dress to save the world. Image via IMDb.
Because this is totally how you dress to save the world. Image via IMDb.

In 2016, this terrible year in which some disasters hit with the shock of a thunderbolt and others drag on like a cold you can’t shake, the small-scale disaster of a wonderfully bad tv show is just what I need to take my mind off the rest of the world for a few hours.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

For Writers of Dull Titles of Best of Books Lists

The other day I saw yet another recommended books article with a headline of the type:

  • [number] Books You Must Read
  • [number] Books Every [persontype] Should Read

Ah hah hah hah haa. No. So much no. A non-descriptive headline isn’t an attraction, it’s a turnoff.

Writing a header like that, enthusiastic as it’s probably supposed to be, just comes across as lazy, narrow-minded, lazy, self-centered, and lazy marketing-speak.

Flickr Mundo Resink Frustration Detail

It makes me think that your interests, oh dear random person on the Internet, aren’t even in the same galaxy as mine. Worse off, it sounds like you don’t care enough about your job to throw in even one modifier, not one, to narrow down the audience for your list.

There are no books you get to flat-out tell me I must or should read. For one, you’re not the boss of me. You don’t get to dictate my choices. For another, you’re not the arbiter of universal taste. What you promote is not and cannot ever be a must of anything for the rest of humankind. Furthermore, you know nothing of me; literally, not a thing. You don’t know whether I’m interested in whatever it is you’re promoting, whether I hate it, whether I’m lukewarm, or whether it might be a PTSD trigger. Assuming your recommendations are a must for everyone else is dismissive of priorities, experiences, and circumstances that differ from yours. Lastly, your puny title tells me absolutely nothing about your list. There’s not even an indication of whether we’re talking about fiction or non-fiction. I won’t waste a click on a header that’s laughably generic. Congratulations, you’ve just wasted both your time and your employer’s dollars.

Instead, tell me why I might want to have a look at your list. For example, the headlines below have a significantly higher likelihood of getting a click, provided I’m remotely interested in the topic / genre / protagonist / etc.:

  • [number] Books to Read If You Like [topic]
  • Exploring [genre] Worlds: [number] Books for Newcomers
  • [number] Books with [type of protagonists]
  • Our Favorite [genre] Books in the Style of [popular title]
  • Love [author]? You Might Also Like These [number] Books on [topic]
  • New Books for [popular title] Fans to Check Out
  • [number] Books to Consider for [topic] Enthusiasts
  • Darker, Edgier [genre] Worlds
  • The [number] Most Inventive Books that Break [genre] Barriers
  • [number] Worlds to Delve into If You Like [author]

Much, much more informative, don’t you agree?

Image: detail of photograph by Mundo Resink via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Here there be opinions!

Putting Trigger Warnings on my Syllabi

160303booksThe question of whether we, as professors, should include trigger warnings on our course syllabi has been bubbling in academia for a few years now. I’ve been uncertain what to do and my university’s administration has not taken a public position. After wide reading and long thought, I’ve decided to add a content note to my syllabi. Here is how it goes:

This course involves topics that may evoke strong reactions. These topics include war, violence, slave-holding societies, non-consensual sexual activity, and various forms of social inequality, but other topics may come up in the course of class discussion. I will do my best to inform you about what upcoming readings will cover, but it will not always be possible to predict what topics will arise in discussion or what associations may arise for you as you read.

It is your responsibility as a student to complete all assigned coursework and readings and to participate in class discussions. It is my responsibility as your professor to help you overcome any obstacles to doing so.

If you anticipate that some topic may be difficult for you, or if you discover that an assignment provokes a reaction that prevents you from continuing your work as a student, please come see me to discuss it. If a topic arises in class discussion that makes you too uncomfortable to remain in class, you are welcome to leave the room until you feel ready to return. If you need to leave the room during class discussion, please come and see me afterwards when you feel ready to do so. In either case, we will work together to find alternative ways for you to do the coursework.

You are also welcome to seek support and guidance outside of class. Student Counseling Services is at your disposal, as is Campus Spiritual Life. You do not have to discuss difficult emotional subjects with me if you do not wish to, but if I don’t know that something is creating an obstacle to your coursework, I can’t help you find a way around it.

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Quotes: I Don’t Need Characters to Be Likeable

Author Chuck Wendig shared a list of reasons that will make him put down a book he’s reading. Number 16 includes this bit:

“I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.”

– Chuck Wendig

Hear, hear. Well-written characters can save an awkward plot or shoddy pacing, or make an otherwise outdated novel from the 1800s enjoyable. But even a detailed and rich world suffers if there are only unpalatable or cardboard-thin individuals inhabiting it.

Fiction—or non-fiction, for that matter—is at its best when readers form an empathic connection with one or more characters. Depend upon it, readers will notice if authors treat their cast merely as a walking, talking plot delivery system.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

20 Fantasy Worlds to Visit

Bryce Wilson at Screen Rant published a list of 15 fantasy books / series to “shak[e] off some serious Westeros withdrawal” after the sixth season finale of Game of Thrones aired at the end of June.

While there were solid choices on the list, what struck me was that out of 15 named creators only 2 were women. That’s 13%. Since women make up half of the world’s population, an eighth is an unacceptably low proportion in my eyes, so I made a list of my own.

Flickr Peter Roan Monteleone Chariot
Even Achilles knows that women are an integral part of the world.

Notes on my list: 1) it’s novels only (no anthologies), 2) in a random order, 3) with no double entries (otherwise I’d include also Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy), 4) and I include not only a variety of flavors within the fantasy genre but also historical fiction. Moreover, 5) I’ve included old and newer favorites as well as new-to-me authors whose works sound intriguing. Finally, 6) the common denominator is (like in the Game of Thrones) the presence of power struggles of various sorts, negotiation of identities, and survival.

1. Ursula K. Le Guin. The Earthsea cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea; The Tombs of Atuan; The Farthest Shore; Tehanu; Tales from Earthsea; The Other Wind)

Aspects of identity examined in an island-based early medievalesque world with magic and lots of sailing.

2. Kai Ashante Wilson. Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

Sword and sorcery, gods and mortals, with a band of mercenaries working as caravan guard in focus. (Linguist’s note: Fascinating mix of vernacular and more formal language.)

3. N.K. Jemisin: The Dreamblood duology (The Killing Moon; The Shadowed Sun)

Ancient-Egyptian-flavored fantasy on a moon orbiting a Jupiter-like gas giant.

4. Samuel R. Delany. Nevèrÿon series (Tales of Nevèrÿon; Neveryóna; Flight from Nevèrÿon; The Return to Nevèrÿon)

Sword and sorcery in a world before the dawn of history, with strong elements of power, economic development and breaking barriers.

5. Rosemary Kirstein. The Steerswoman

D&D-like adventures in a medievalesque world with hidden computer technology.

6. Saladin Ahmed. Throne Of The Crescent Moon

Old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery with an Arabian Nights flavor.

7. Robin Hobb. The Farseer trilogy (Assassin’s Apprentice; Royal Assassin; Assassin’s Quest)

Convoluted political intrigues and power struggles in the Six Duchies.

8. Kate Elliott. Black Wolves

Four generations of dynastic struggles in a Central-Asia-influenced world with demons and a power-hungry new religion.

9. Nicola Griffith. Hild

Political intrigue between Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in a fictionalized 7th-century Britain.

10. David Anthony Durham. The Acacia trilogy (Acacia: The War with the Mein; Acacia: The Other Lands; Acacia: The Sacred Band)

Political, economic, mythological and morally ambiguous forces battle for the control of the Acacian empire.

11. Nicole Kornher-Stace. Archivist Wasp

Yearly duels to the death to gain or retain the title Archivist in a post-collapse world with ghosts.

12. Charles R. Saunders. Imaro

Sword and sorcery, heroic warriors, grand landscapes, giants and magic in a world inspired by Africa.

13. Robert Harris. Cicero trilogy (Imperium; Lustrum [U.S. title: Conspirata]; Dictator)

Rise to and repercussions of power told through a fictional biography of Cicero.

14. Alaya Dawn Johnson. The Spirit Binders series (Racing the Dark; The Burning City)

A coming-of-age story in an island world resembling Polynesia where people have learned to bind elemental powers to their command.

15. Joe Abercrombie. The First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself; Before They Are Hanged; Last Argument of Kings)

Demons and humans in a dark, edgy world full of skirmishes.

16. Guy Gavriel Kay. The Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium; Lord of Emperors)

Power voids, political intrigue, assassins and travels in a world inspired by 6th-century Mediterranean.

17. Brandon Sanderson. Mistborn series (The Final Empire; The Well of Ascension; The Hero of Ages)

Magic from metals in a mist-laden world.

18. Patrick Rothfuss. The Kingkiller Chronicle (The Name of the Wind; The Wise Man’s Fear; Day Three: The Doors of Stone [working title])

Magic and music meet in a coming-of-age story.

19. Aliette de Bodard. Obsidian and Blood books (Servant of the Underworld; Harbinger of the Storm; Master of the House of Darts)

Three standalone Aztec noir fantasy-mysteries with blood magic, star-demons and war.

20. Kameron Hurley. The Worldbreaker Saga (The Mirror Empire; Empire Ascendant; The Broken Heavens [forthcoming])

Brutal power struggles in a world where plants can walk and kill, and blood magic opens portals between parallel realities.

Bonus entry by a fellow Finn:

Emmi Itäranta. The City of Woven Streets

A blend of a coming-of-age story with high-stakes intrigue and danger on an island with water-based tech.

Enjoy! I know I will get back to this list after finishing my current reading project.

Image: Monteleone chariot with Thetis and Achilles, detail of image by Peter Roan on Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 (Etruscan, currently Greek and Roman galleries, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2nd quarter of the 6th century BCE; bronze inlaid with ivory)

Messing with numbers is messy.

Why White Horus Bothers Me More Than Black Heimdall

In 2011’s Thor, Idris Elba, despite not looking typically Norse, plays the Norse god Heimdall. In 2016’s Gods of Egypt, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, despite not looking typically Egyptian, plays the Egyptian god Horus. The casting of Elba as Heimdall surprised me the first time I saw the movie, but it has never bothered me as a fan or as a historian. Coster-Waldau as Horus really bothers me and I think it’s worth taking a minute to explain why.

160310HeimdallHorus

I have nothing against Coster-Waldau as an actor. I haven’t seen Gods of Egypt and don’t plan to, so I have nothing to say about his performance in this particular role, but he’s not the problem here. The problem is in the casting of the movie as a whole.

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Why I Always Grant Extensions

160303booksAs the middle of the semester approaches and assignments start coming due, the e-mails start coming in. Students start coming to me before or after class or poking their heads into my office between classes. I know what they’re going to ask. Some of them know the word for it; others just know what they need: a few more days to work on their papers and projects. An extension.

There’s always a reason. The flu. Grandmother passed away. Father in the hospital. Car trouble. I know pretty much what they’re going to say before they even open their mouths. And I know what I’m going to say, too: yes. Always yes. I never ask for proof (though my students will often bring me notes and I will look at them out of respect). Anyone who asks can have a few extra days.

I have known professors who take pride in never having granted an extension, or if they do they want to see the doctor’s note and the obituary in the newspaper and they will run the story down like an investigative journalist tracking a political scandal. For them, deadlines are deadlines: the line past which you’d better be dead and have a note from God if your paper isn’t done. I respect my fellow professors who teach this way, but it’s not my way.

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Gatesmashing

We’re all familiar with gatekeeping: when members of a fandom (or geekishness in general) try to exclude others for not being true fans or real geeks because they haven’t seen/read/played every obscure iteration of the franchise or don’t know every minute detail of the lore. “Oh, you haven’t seen the Holiday Special?” they sniff. “Well, you’re not really a Star Wars fan, then.” “You don’t know how many buttons were on the second Doctor’s costume? Begone, fake Whovian!”

If you’re fortunate enough to have never witnessed or experienced gatekeeping, here’s a few discussions (picked more or less at random) to give you an idea of what it is and why it sucks:

No One Can Deny You Entry to Geekdom, But Some Can Make It Really Hard to Get Through the Door First by Michi Trota on Geek Melange

The Psychology of the Fake Geek Girl: Why We’re Threatened by Falsified Fandom by Dr. Andrea Letamendi on The Mary Sue

A Creator’s Note to “Gatekeepers” by John Scalzi on Whatever

You see what I mean? Gatekeeping is wrong, hurtful, and no fun. And while it’s true that it can be done by anybody to anybody (I’m a straight man and I’ve had my fandom cred challenged by queer women half my age), it is a weapon frequently deployed by the privileged against the un-privileged, in whatever terms those categories may be defined.

Gatekeeping needs to stop. It’s time we all acknowledge that none of us has seen everything and none of us knows everything, even about the things we love the most. No one is any less of a geek or a fan because of the things they don’t know. All it means is there are still things for us to watch and read and play and find out about, and that’s awesome. Seriously, I feel so sorry for anyone who has nothing new left to learn or experience.

And so, I propose a new pastime: gatesmashing! Instead of obsessing over the things we have seen and read and played, let’s proclaim the things we haven’t. Tell us what you’ve never experienced, and tell us proudly. Not a comprehensive list, of course, but the first few things that come to mind.

I’ll go first.

I have never seen:

  • Rocky Horror Picture Show
  • Starship Troopers
  • The Dark Crystal
  • Any Doctor Who starring the first or fifth-through-eighth Doctors

I have never read anything by:

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Ursula K. Le Guin

I have never played:

  • Skyrim
  • Minecraft
  • Dragon Age

And the fact that I haven’t doesn’t make me any less of a geek than anyone who has.

Here there be opinions!

Two Fan-Made Black Widow Videos

These two fan-made Black Widow videos are professional grade! First, there’s a fantastic, stylized, graphic title sequence for an imagined Black Widow movie:

Black Widow title sequence by Christopher Haley

Then there’s this trailer for an imagined Black Widow origins movie created from existing movie snippets:

Black Widow: The Origin trailer by unknown; uploaded by Elinor X

I heartily second the sentiment in the origin trailer’s end “credits” – rather than an Ant Man story or another Spider Man re-launch, I’d sooooo much prefer a movie focused on Black Widow. Given the traction that action movies are currently enjoying, it’s a better time than ever before to bring women-lead superhero stories on screen.

But here’s the secret – and I’m going to say this with the emphasis it needs – THE STORIES NEED TO BE GREAT. With solid storytelling (including visuals and pacing), well-rounded characters throughout, and excellent casting. Half-hearted attempts will not cut it.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.