Pleasantly Surprised by Warcraft

An unusual thing happened this weekend: I went out, without my children. I took my husband to a movie. When I was child-free, there was a word for this kind of shocking activity. I think it was ‘a date’.
As a pre-father’s day gift, the movie that we went to see was ‘Warcraft’, based on the hugely popular ‘World of Warcraft’ MMO.
Things you need to know: I do not play the game, but my husband does. We are both fans of Tolkien, and so picking this as our date was perhaps not so enormous a gift of love as it would be if hubby decided to take me to see the latest screening of an RSC production (if you’re reading, love; yes, you may consider that a hint!). But you also need to know that after other game-to-movie escapades like It-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named-(But-Which-Involves-Dungeons-and-Dragons) , we both had reason to be sceptical. And we’ve all been through that experience of seeing something that we love be – well, ruined, in adaptation. The Battle of the Five Armies was the last example of this for me (a movie which I did not expect to actually be all battle).
I was pleasantly surprised by Warcraft. And I thought I would share with you why.
Firstly, I was impressed by the deft way in which the director double-bluffed his audience from the get-go; having led me to believe that his establishing shots would serve to establish sympathy for the human protagonists, we were instead taken straight to the keynote Orc characters – a chieftain and his pregnant mate. This unexpected opening was genuinely tender, and hugely successful – especially, I think, for someone like me – a young mother with little exposure to the game beyond what she has glimpsed over hubby’s shoulder.
There also seemed to be genuine respect for the source-game. I’ve seen my husband’s various characters flying around the Warcraft world, a landscape of Middle-Earth qualities – and many of the shots of the settings looked like loving evocations of places that players have adored for years. And so, while it was a little lost on me, I get the feeling that these shots would really speak to the game’s dedicated fans.
The visual quality of the film was certainly stunning; much like watching a Miyazaki, even if there were plot holes from time to time, the dedication to evoking the world was pretty riveting.
But there was also plenty of story to this film, and characters that you genuinely came to care about – human and Orc. Sure, there were a certain number of ‘sudden but inevitable betrayals’ (if Joss Whedon is remembered for nothing else, it should be that phrase!), but there were also some bold moves that I was not expecting. I won’t say too much more, but I will say that some scenes hit my husband and I, as parents, especially hard.
There were characters here that you could grasp and relate to; scholarly mages, powerful warriors, mothers, sisters, those outcast for their differences. They might have been wearing funny clothes and living in a fictitious land, but they were still us – even the orcs. 
My husband tells me that there were elements of the story that were changed between the very first game that the film is based one, and what we saw on Saturday. He felt that these were, overall, positive changes. It also seemed to both of us that the highly judicious editing left a couple of necessary scenes on the cutting room floor. Even so, there was enough story to carry through. 
Having been left somewhat disillusioned by The Hobbit’s fall into a mediaeval 300, I was genuinely delighted to be watching a film that used battle narrative to further a story, rather than leaving the audience feeling bludgeoned. 
My only real disappointment with the film came from a line of dialogue which left me, as a Christian, rather exasperated; following the self-sacrificial death of a main character, something like the following was declared: ‘He gave his life in sacrifice for all of us, now we must deserve it’. Of course, Warcraft has not set out to give fictitious form to biblical truths, but I felt so frustrated to see an idea so powerful to Christians – the sacrifice of a great King for his people – given a guilt-spin; because, of course, the whole point of the cross is that we don’t deserve it, and can’t earn it. But this, as I said, is a personal quibble, and one which is not fair to level at this film.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole film for me was a kind of tenderness; the sense that the director was handling something that he personally loved; an awareness that he was dealing with something that millions of other people also loved, and wanting to honour that affection. In this sense, the film was suffused with care and attention. And, even to a Warcraft novice like myself, it was notable, creating a sense not that I was an intruder to a secret club, but rather that I was being openly and respectfully invited to experience another world.
In short: I came away from the theatre having enjoyed two hours of story-telling which I didn’t feel was a slave to its stunning CGI, and with the feeling of having shared in a story that I know is so important to people across the globe. Now, at least, I feel like understand that passion a little more. And, if a second, or even third, Warcraft film was made, I wouldn’t need much convincing to go and see them. 
Our verdict? A successful date! 


Nerdinator: The Rise of the Geeks


Another post inspired by a bit of catch-up viewing on Netflix. This time, it’s been the later series of ‘The Big Bang Theory’ – a show with just enough relationship entanglements to appeal to general sitcom enthusiasts, and spades of geekdom to draw in people like me. The popularity and appeal of the show has left me wondering: is it at the expense of the nerd and geek? Or did we suddenly become mainstream enough to be considered – dare I say it? – cool?

Perhaps you, like me, were in that special sidelined group at school – the group that enjoyed Star Wars or Star Trek, that liked to play role-playing games, that had little or no interest in make up or sport or whatever else the majority of kids were into. Or perhaps you were in the groups who played MMORPGs – maybe World of Warcraft or Minecraft, or myriad variants thereof. Shunned socially, sometimes viewed as odd, weird or outright repulsive, the nerds and geeks of schools up and down the country laboured under the label of ‘different’ and were maligned accordingly. I use the past tense because it seems to me that there is a much higher tolerance and admiration for these groups now than 20 years ago, and I suspect that it is this that makes shows like The Big Bang Theory possible to green light in the first place.

But why this sea change? Is it, as Bill Gates has been wont to observe, that we end up working for the nerds and geeks (thus his exhortation to be kind to them)? Is it that, as those school cliques grow into adulthood, we come to see each other beyond the raging hormones of adolescence and encompassing struggle for identity?

As the cool kids and the geeks and nerds become the responsible adults, maybe it is as simple as society coming to terms with us and understanding that we are not threatening; rather, we can make a really valuable and positive contribution to society. A little case in point; the chances are that you’re reading this post on a tablet device or smartphone of some kind (it’s certainly been written on one!) – technology made possible by the nerds and geeks who wanted to make the gadgets of Star Trek a reality. You make quotidian use of the Internet and, in what has to be delightful irony for that most socially unacceptable of groups, the social media that we use every day is the work of those selfsame geeks and nerds.

I suspect that a greater understanding of conditions like Asperger’s and autism also plays a part, as less extreme cases (rather like Sheldon’s in ‘The Big Bang Theory’) often demonstrate dedicated interest in something that others might find unusual and real difficulty with social interactions. As this is studied – both medically and through the social lens of characters like Sheldon, or arguably some aspects of recent incarnations of Dr Who or current reimaginings of Sherlock – it makes it ‘okay’ to deal empathetically with people like this in our day to day lives.

Geeks have moved from being portrayed as the odd outcasts to being sympathetic and interesting, and having a vital role in culture and society. Geek chic and geek style glasses are a real deal, gracing media everywhere. We know what Comicon is, and we might well ‘get it’ even if we’d never go ourselves. As we appreciate their likenesses to ourselves, we seem to have developed a genuine fondness for the geek subculture.

This is epitomised, to my mind, in a comment made by Leonard in season 7 of ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Asked why he is friends with Sheldon, he explains that the loveable anti-hero is loyal, trustworthy and a good friend. It’s almost a Shylockian ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ style statement, underlining the humanity of geeks and nerds. We may be different, but we are still human – and moved by the same passions and seasons as mainstream society.

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A Universe of Gates: Thoughts on ‘Stargate: Universe’


Been a while since I’ve written a post – returning to work after maternity leave will do that to you! – but part of it can also be explained by what I’ve been watching on Netflix: Stargate: Universe.

For context, you need to know that I loved Stargate; SG-1 began broadcasting when I was in my early teens, and I was (and remain) a devotee of both the story and the story-telling. Okay, the first two seasons are a little hit and miss, but as the series grew it was plain that this was wholesome storytelling, in so far as it delighted in the personalities and quirks of its protagonists, was able to paint against a grand canvas, but didn’t take itself so seriously that it couldn’t explore itself through the lens of the parodic. The series was a winning mix of character driven story telling, with humour, compassion and challenge, with a good dose of sci fi. Perhaps, as Christopher Judge (Teal’c) said in a recent interview, the series wouldn’t be made today – but there’s real charm and quality to it. Much the same can be said for its spin-off, Stargate Atlantis – which I also enjoyed immensely. In fact, I love the series so much that when I first applied to Cambridge it was to read – you guessed it – Egyptology.

You can imagine how excited I and my fellow Gatephiles were in 2009 when Universe was first broadcast – we were looking forward to more of the same (even if we were expecting rather better cgi). It’s not what we got.

Judging by the way the ratings figures look, I stuck it out longer than many. But I didn’t last. Just five episodes into the 2009 run, I gave up. To me, it just wasn’t Stargate.

Fast-forward to 2016. I’ve been rewatching SG-1 while subjecting my husband to this formative part of my adolescence, and come across SG:U. I’m still routinely stuck on the sofa nursing a baby in the evenings, so I decide to give it a go – for completeness’ sake.

The short of it is that 7 years’ absence has given me the ability to see the series for what it is. Criticised by many as too much like a soap opera or masquerading as the revamped Battlestar Galactica, Universe is dark, gritty, more interpersonal than interplanetary (especially in its first season). It’s a story about ‘the wrong people’ – in the wrong place and at the wrong time to boot. It’s difficult to really empathise with any of the characters because, with the possible exception of Eli Wallace, they are all flawed, broken, or outright self-serving people. Even when, like the O’Neill’s, Carters, MacKays and Weirs of the preceding shows, they are strong, cunning, intelligent or diplomatic, it comes at a price, and 11th hour plans never come off without a hitch. Nobody has plot armour.

It was a bold – and intentional – step on the part of the writers and producers. And it was in many ways the death of the franchise. But with the benefit of emotional distance, it’s clear to me that while SG:U is not really ‘Stargate’, it still in many ways exemplifies good, character driven story telling – which was, after all, what really made its predecessors.

I felt like it was a third of the way into the second season before Universe really found its feet, by which point its cancellation had been sealed – just as the series started to explore a little more of its inherent scifi story hooks. By the time I reached the closing shots of the final episode, I was close to tears. I had genuinely come to care about these characters, and wished that I had just a little more time with them.

The entombment of Destiny‘s crew in stasis and the uncertainty of Eli’s fate is poignantly metaphoric of the fate of the franchise and its fans. Like many of the latter, I feel betrayed by the impending Stargate reboot, which intends to make almost 20 years of wormhole travel worth much less than one of the parallel universes in the quantum mirror. The eradication from canon of these series feels like the equivalent of hurling the toys (and soother, and muslin, and bottle) from the pram in a maelstrom of intellectual property fury. It is, to put it bluntly, not cool.

I have no doubt that the rebooted Stargate movie trilogy will look impressive, or that it will amass vital dollars in theatres. It will probably even accrue a new generation of fans who dream of aliens amid the pyramids of Giza. But, Emmerich and co, here’s the snag: 20 years of storytelling doesn’t just disappear because you will it to. And, when all is said and done, I rather suspect that the new fans will go back to the television series; and that the box sets of SG-1, Atlantis, and even Universe will be highly tradeable commodities on eBay long after the collector’s extended rebooted Stargate Trilogy edition drops down to £2.99 and free postage.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

Viking Angst: The Last Kingdom so far…


6 episodes into this adaptation of Bernard Cornwall’s novels, I can’t be the only one that feels like slapping the show’s protagonist, Uhtred (son of Uhtred) with a wet fish. Repeatedly. And then some more.

I have to come clean with you: I haven’t read the novels upon which the series is based (so no spoilers, please!); thus, I am purely making a judgement on the tv series (something I tell my students to never, ever do!). But I really do feel like challenging this angsty, identity-crisis-ridden, power hungry Viking-Saxon Legolas/Aragorn mash-up to a duel with something suitably demeaning. Blancmange, perhaps. Though I’m sure he’d still manage to slaughter me with it – Uhtred’s just that kind of guy.

Of course, story-telling that gets you this riled is inherently good story-telling, because it’s done just want it intended: got you to care. I cared when pre-teen Uhtred lost his father and was enslaved by Saxons (as a mum to a nearly three year and nearly seven month old respectively, how could I not?); I cared when Uhtred gained in his Viking family something he had never seemed to have in Bebbanburg. I cared when he lost that, and applauded him for keeping his promise to King Alfred despite personal cost. It warmed my heart to see a bit of genuine feeling between him and Mildreth and their young son. He was clearly a guy with anger-management and pride issues, but I was still rooting for him.

Then, the end of episode 5 happened. With the killing of his thieving servant, Uhtred seemed suddenly to go wild. The next thing we know, he’s riding off into non-aggressive territory to thieve himself, and shacking up with a pagan sorceress because… well, she looked ravishing. And poor wife Mildreth is in a position unenviable even to a Bond girl.

I understand that I can’t expect a character in this cultural setting to have feminist, or even proto-feminist notions, but… seriously??!! Uhtred son of Uhtred, you need to take a step back and realise that some things are more important than your patrimony.

The BBC has done well to create this series in a way that allows it to step past inevitable Game of Thrones comparisons, and the cinematography is atmospherically twilit, suggestive of a time and place where Christian and pagan worlds collide and victory is costly and uncertain. Indeed, the conflict between those views – with Christianity figured in cunning, scholarly Alfred and cherishing, loyal Mildreth and its foil in the primal instincts of the Viking world – is one whose resolution is as interesting to me as the story itself.

The spheres of those worlds clash in Uhtred. He is everything and nothing, seeking value in the only thing that means anything to him – his honour, vengeance, and inheritance. It’s a quest that is destroying him.

Am I the only viewer who just wants to see him learn a little humility and self-control?

Uhtred’s struggles are, it seems to me, applicable (in Tolkien’s sense) to much of life in the modern world. Our instincts are to avenge, to self-aggrandise, to claim our ‘rights’ even at cost to others. Our culture, like the Viking one, tells us this is okay, reasonable, normal.

Perhaps we, too, need to learn to ‘bend the knee’. Preferably before someone decides to slug us with a wet fish.

Like my writing? Check out my sister site to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.