Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Jessica Jones

(SPOILERS) 

So why does this work so well? Partly it's due to Kristen Ritter's screen presence. She was superb in  Breaking Bad, and here her lanky toughness perfectly matches a character forever walking down dark cold streets, drinking to forget and taking  photographs of people screwing in alleyways. One of the first shots we see of her is after a client has just been punched through her office's glass door. "And then there's the matter of your bill," she says over his stunned body. It's a frame straight out of the original  comic book, but Ritter really sells it.

Secondly, it's due to its genuinely horrific villain. David Tennant as Kilgrave is the personification of male entitlement and delusion. This is a guy who insists on two kidneys from a donor instead of one because he wants to feel whole. The sheer inadequacy as well as the arrogance of toxoc masculinity is caught so well by Tennant and the scripts. Anyone who's dared look at the "Gamergate" hashtag, or read tweets by the sort of men who complain "when is International Men's Day?", can recognize it. Ultimately this is a show about rape which is unflinchingly honest yet never salacious or graphic. We don't actually see the rape scenes, yet we feel the rape in all its horror and stark injustice, and see how utterly ludicrous is the stalker's belief that he is entitled to be his prey's lover. On one hand, the show is strong enough to be openly non-metaphorical: as Jessica says, what Kilgrave did was rape, pure and simple. Yet on the other hand, by that one fantastical twist, we see it in an original yet horribly familiar and true light. This is what all good fantasy does: as GK Chesterton observed, it takes the commonplace and simply adjusts the angle at which we see it. What this show makes us feel so profoundly is that men are not entitled to women, and a man can never understand a woman if she doesn't love him, however much he may convince himself otherwise. However much harm Kilgrave causes Jessica, he can never possess her, or know who she is.

The metaphor works so well because it is kept simple: unlike the villains in Heroes, Kilgrave has just one superpower, yet by selecting this and following it down the line, this show makes us realise that a man always getting his own way would be the most frightening superpower of all. The various  moments in which this power manifests itself - as characters are forced to cut each other 99 times, detonate suicide bombs, cut their own heart out, shoot their parents, throw hot coffee in their own faces, impale themselves upon garden shears - are all the more frightening as a result: part of a single, relentlessly approaching foe.

Perhaps the crucial factor in why this show works is its feminism, which permeates it at all levels. There are deftly gender-swapped takes on the usual stereotypes - Hogarth, the tough lawyer trying to get a divorce and start a new life with a younger woman is played by the steely Carrie-Anne Moss - and the obnoxiousness of patriarchy is seen in its more everyday as well as diabolical manifestations, such as the odious guy who tries to chat up Jessica and Trish in a bar. The sex scenes tend to show the female characters in control, and it's the female gaze rather than the male gaze that's catered to, with Mike Colter being the only person to strip and male-on-female oral sex is depicted rather than vice versa as is more common on television.

Just when it looks like Jessica Jones is going to suffer the same brief lapse as Daredevil and bring torture and rendition  into the Overton window - mentioned as part of the techniques Simpson acquired in his military background - it interrogates them more successfully than in Daredevil because Simpson is no hero, but a portrayal of the inadequacy of the patriarchal military mindset. Jessica's capture of Kilgrave, use of an electrified cell and her killing of him at the end never really becomes offensive because the show wisely avoids allegory: the threat posed by Kilgrave is never compared to a war on terrorism, and Simpsons's attempts to approach it in that way are rejected: this is purely about Kilgrave and Jessica, and she tackles him the only way she can.

This show, like Daredevil, has picked up a valuable technique from a Breaking Bad: keep changing the stakes. We think that Hogarth will settle into a familiar role: providing legal backup and plenty of letter-of-the-law vs Jessica's Way sparks, but then she releases Kilgrave to suit her own ends, leading to the death of her estranged wife and the arrest of her lover. We think Simpson will either be a well-meaning dunce or will die heroically, but he turns murderous. The writers make it impossible for themselves to fall back on clich├ęs: after what unfolds in each episode, they can only move forward. Another aspect it may owe to Breaking Bad - again used to similarly great effect in Daredevil - is that while the stakes change, the antagonist remains the same over the season, which makes the show almost unbearably taut as we start to despair of the protagonist ever gaining the advantage over him, and by avoiding overcomplicating the narrative allows the writers to explore the effect the conflict has on the protagonist's sanity, sense of morality and on those around her.

Jessica Jones is also a show in which the supporting characters are as memorable and three-dimensional as the main players. Eka Darville as Malcolm goes on a remarkable arc: first he's the heroine addict whose role seems to be just to wander confused into Jessica's apartment without realising it isn't his, and who we assume will serve no other purpose in the narrative, like Jessica herself when she rather callously exploits the way people see Malcolm and uses him as a decoy when robbing the hospital. Then, when it's revealed he's another one of Kilgrave's pawns, we expect he'll go the way of the rest of them. When he's forced to go cold turkey, however, he turns out to be stronger than anyone thought. He does his best to help Jessica during a crisis when Reuben's body is planted in her flat, then puts his energy into the Kilgrave Survivors Group. He finally starts to lose patience with this, and starts to wonder if his degree in social care is being put to any real use, but ultimately decides that superheroes like Jessica need friends to pick up the pieces. The closing scene of the series, in which Jessica arrives back at her apartment to find Malcolm there cooking, and when she ignores the phone and deletes messages he unexpectedly picks it up and says "Alias Investigations: how may we help you?" is a wonderfully touching, funny moment: a character finds a path for him himself which is unexpected and yet makes perfect sense. Robyn, marvellously played by Colby Minifie, is another masterclass in how to write and play a supporting character. Her characterisation never goes down the conventional path: she never loses her temper or her tendency to say the wrong thing, yet we feel her pain at losing her beloved twin brother Reuben - her confession that she is lost without Reuben because he was the one everyone liked is a wonderfully moving moment - and see she is capable of her own skewed version of warmth and empathy when forgiving Malcolm.

Trish is less interesting. Rachael Taylor is the only weak piece of casting, lacking the distinctive presence of Ritter, Mike Colter (so strong here as Luke Cage, and enjoying some explosive chemistry with Ritter, that I look forward to covering the upcoming Cage series) or Moss and the quirkiness of Darville and Minifie, and the character is somewhat rote: a former child star turned successful radio talk show host (the host of a show no-one likes would have been more interesting). She performs her role adequately, but it remains a challenge for later seasons to make her as compelling as Jessica, Hogarth and Luke. Rosario Dawson as Claire, despite not appearing until the final episode, demonstrates more chemistry with Jessica than Trish does in the whole season (in fact, her appearance might be the most successful example of a crossover I've ever seen, adding character depth and increasing our emotional connection to the idea of a shared world, rather than a reference for the sake of referencing.)

So that's Jessica Jones: the kind of show everyone always says Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars are, a piece of pop culture that actually reflects the concerns of a generation instead of other pieces of pop culture, and reminds us that superpowers are no barrier to quality drama. It's the best show out there.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

New Blog! All the Bonds In Random Order

New blog here, in which I examine all the Bond films in random order. I'll be unsparing about the films' more dubious aspects, while at the same time exploring how other aspects make for fantastic cinema.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Daredevil (Netflix)


(Spoilers)

First of all this, this series works despite being built upon a shaky concept: the preposterousness of Matt's abilities. Matt can recognise someone from the ticking of his wristwatch, detects (,using God knows which sense) that the room he's in contains a box of nails and has superhearing which varies from scene to scene. Then again, all superpowers are preposterous, as was Breaking Bad's concept of a Nobel-winnng scientist reduced to teaching in a high school and working in a car wash. It's acceptable providing the events and characters into which this outrageous concept is unleashed remaining plausible, and in Daredevil, as in Breaking Bad, they do.

There's a nasty descent into 24-esque stupidity in the second episode, when we are asked to believe that a nurse - who is clearly of normal moral character - witnessing Matt interrogate someone would start suggesting what nerves in his body Matt should attack and how he can access them. I don't think that scenes in which superheroes punch villains while demanding answers normalise torture any more than car chases normalise dangerous driving and action in general (fight scenes, shoot-outs) normalises violence - in all those cases the context is too far from reality to do so. What's offensive about this scene, as with 24, is the way it fetishes medical terminology. The most sinister apologists for torture  are not its passionate advocates, but those who style themselves as liberals but see torture as part of the Overton window, as something controversial rather than something no decent person could defend.  With this scene Daredevil has contributed to the idea that torture is something to be debated. I'm also not keen on the distinction the show draws between killing someone and throwing them off a roof into a skip and into a coma. Every time Matt draws this ridiculous line, there's little sense that the writers disagree. This is a long way from the beady eye Breaking Bad's writers keep on Walter White's justifications. I also don't like the gratuitous use of paedophilia as a justification for one brutal scene: like terrorism, this seems to be an excuse to let the mask of liberalism slip so that we can indulge in our most atavistic desires for violence. We're watching this show because we enjoy watching a masked superhero beat the shit out of no-good punks, so it's obviously not going to do as distressing and real a horror as paedophilia justice. At moments like this, you end up with something too unpleasant to be entertaining but too flippant to be anything else. The same goes for the sight of young Fisk beating his father's brains out with a hammer. I'm always reminded of Adam Mars Jones's distinction when critiquing the Watchman movie: "I get sordid. I get escapism. I don't like them mixed."

However, Daredevil has many strengths. Unlike Gotham, this is a show that raises the stakes. The end of episode 8, where Wilson decides to go public rather than let Matt and friends spend several seasons tying to expose him, shocks because it changes the entire dramatic impetus. Gotham, by contrast, had an episode where Jim and Harvey arrest Falcone, but the show backed down and pretty much reimposed the stays quo. Daredevil, on the other hand, allows five things to happen in its first season that other shows would have saved for much later (Wesley's death, Ben's death, Wilson going public, Wilson getting exposed, Foggy finding out about Matt's alter ego), preventing the characterisation from becoming repetitive, forcing the writers to address new situations with each episode. A particular triumph comes at the end of episode 11. Both Toby Leonard Moore's performance and the deft characterisation have given Wesley real staying power, so it comes as an enormous shock to see him killed off, and the situation this plunges Karen into is not the arc we were expecting for that character: along with the surprise of Foggy finding out about Matt in the first season, it breaks up what seemed to be a cozy Buffy\Xander\Willow or Harry\Ron\Hermione setup. Similarly, we can imagine Ben staying for the next season as both a useful aide to Matt and part of a "downtrodden disbelieved reporter gets vindicated" arc, but we don't even get to see him publish his expose of Fisk before his startling death. In this show death interrupts and destroys; it results in a shift of power and an escalation of tension. It seems to be a trick Daredevil picked up from Breaking Bad, as with the often terrific precredits sequences which establish something similar to that show's distinctive opening post-traumatic aesthetic. Watching this, you realise how much killing off Fish or the Penguin would improve Gotham, let alone how much more bearable Doctor Who would be if after being killed off its characters stayed dead.

The scenes involving the criminal element never become monotonous as Gotham's do: there aren't too many characters, the scenes are snappy and surprising, and the exchanges are to-the-point, rather than the kind of theatrical flourishes and monologues that Fish, the Penguin and Falcone were allowed to indulge in. Daredevil leaves you intrigued by these people. We see that Wesley and Fisk's relationship has an emotional aspect to it, but only from tantalising lines and glimpses. There's always a danger of banality in the revelation that the villain was treated cruelly as a child, but Vincent D'onofrio's performance, with its unusual inflections and odd combination of a wounded look on his face and a growling voice, is interesting and commanding enough to sell it.

In fact, this show's take on Fisk stands as one of the most credible, interesting and potent villains in years. Like Sanchez in Licence to Kill (and unlike Silva in Skyfall or Oberhauser in Spectre), he has values, motivations and thought processes, has a way of justifying his actions to himself, and exists as a person in his own right rather than to annoy the hero and drive the action scenes. Villains in recent superhero narratives disappoint because they are kept politically neutral, either belonging to an already-demonised ideological system (the Nazi-like agenda of Lord Voldemort, Star Trek Into Darkness's Khan and the Daleks; the Al Qaeida-like League of Shadows in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, the Russian bad guy in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) , strictly in it for the money (the Die Hard model), personal vengeance (Skyfall and Spectre again) or unrealistic conspiracy theories (Star Trek: Into Darkness's Admiral Marcus, The film of V for Vendetta, Mission Impossible Rogue Nation). What we get all too rarely is a villian whose terrible actions  feel like like they are  part of our own problems, including ones which have not been made illegal. This is the Edge of Darkness approach to villains (which Tomorrow Never Dies attempted but couldn't quite pull off with Elliott Carver, and which both Spectre and the "His Last Vow" episode of Sherlock flirted with via the characters of Denbeigh and Magnussen respectively), and it's something I want to see a lot more of: villains that resemble Rupert Murdoch, David Cameron and Fox News. I also want to see villains who are all the more dangerous because, as in real life, they don't realise they are villains. When Fisk says he wants to make the city a better place, he seems to genuinely believe this, which makes the battle to overthrow him all the more compelling. Satisfyingly, this is a show in which the enemy is gentrification. The show neatly builds on the destruction seen in The Avengers, with Leland even pointing out that superheroes are pretty good for their business, as every time they punch someone through a wall there's a wrecked property for them to buy up. Matt, refreshingly, is from a genuinely working class background.

The show also makes effective use of the beleaguered but unbowed reporter trope. Vonda Curtis-Hall's final scene is all the more poignant because instead of a newspaper article, he's about to embark upon a blog to expose Fisk. It's unusual to hear a comic-book villain refer to internet pictures of cats, yet that is the entirely relevant debate he and Ben have. It's something that neither the Superman nor the Spiderman movies have come to terms with, with Man of Steel portraying bloggers as untrustworthy weasels.

But let's be honest: this is still a show that speaks to the adolescent in all of us. We watch it because the fight scenes are cool (and they are remarkably well-done). Even so,  it's a pleasure to get one's visceral thrills from something containing moments of genuine drama.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Why Terminator Genisys didn't work (and why Terminator 3 was grossly underrated)

Terminator Genisys is the kind of film that people wrongly said the third film was. I should say that I'm a lot more tolerant of the Terminator franchise than a lot of people have been since James Cameron moved on. I loved the first two films, but I also loved the third film and the TV series. I was particularly annoyed when Mark Kermode described Genisys as "marginally better" than T3. I'll get on to the reasons why I feel Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a worthy sequel and a fine film throughout this piece. The TV series The Sarah Connor Chronicles obviously doesn't have the compact cinematic structure of the first three films, but was sometimes able to produce a strange poetry from the concepts. The fourth film was until now the series's only dud, but thanks to Genisys I have to concede its future looks bleak.

To my mind, T3 had only one weakness, which the series is still struggling with: how do you top the Terminator and the T1000 as creations? Adam Roberts has pointed out that they are both excellent metaphors for death as pursuer:

What is the Terminator? The Terminator is death; his grinning titanium skull the latest incarnation of an ancient western tradition of iconic momento mori. The first film dramatised, straightforwardly and therefore effectively, life’s struggles and attempted flight from the implacable pursuit of death. The simplicity of the narrative served the story perfectly, because our own mortality is, on one level, wholly linear and perfectly simple: it will come; it will come straight, it will come straight for you; it will not stop. Without exception, that’s the fate of everybody in the world. This unsettling existential truth is at the heart of the original movie’s enduring resonance. In a nutshell, the first Terminator movie said: death is singular, implacable and after you. That’s true. (What I mean when I say this is that although we know, intellectually, that death is general, not singular--that although we die individually others live on--nevertheless that’s not how it feels. Our impending deaths, as the end of our world, feel like the end of the world).

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) told the same story with one wrinkle. It was a text that said: death is still singular, still coming for you personally, still implacable. But it is also protean. That still works, as a core metaphor; and the chase-narrative line of that film was as linear as the first, which is good.

 The Terminator is hardness personified:  heavy metal beneath the flesh of a bodybuilder, implacable, unfeeling, remorseless, not held back by fire, bullets or explosives. The T1000 was softness personified: malleability, mimeticism, unpredictability, polymorphousness, adaptability. T3 couldn't follow this, so its antagonist, the TX, is just a combination of both (and Kristanna Loken, while adequate, is also too conventional a piece of casting, lacking the uncanny, inhuman screen presence that Schwarzenegger, Robert Patrick and the underappreciated trio of Summer Glau, Garret Dillahunt and Shirley Manson from The Sarah Connor Chronicles had in spades). Genisys begins by producing another T1000 (although I've no idea how he ended up in the first film's timeline), then replaces him with an antagonist who isn't significantly different in visual terms, but merely another variation on the death-as-protean metaphor Roberts described.

   The fourth film, 2009's Terminator Salvation, was actually the first one to let the side down. Roberts wrote of Salvation in the same piece:

Terminator: Salvation ditches the eloquence of its own core metaphor. It can’t resist the opportunity to throw all manner of ingenious terminator-types at the screen: robot jets, giant robots, robot motorcycles (which are also the giant robot’s knees), robot half-men-half-biscuits, robot mini flying saucers, robot 1984-vintage Schwarzeneggers, robot conga eels, robot Helena Bonham Carter hologrammatic heads, robot gun emplacements and robot concentration camps. A lot of these realisations are ingenious, and fun to watch, but they mean that the film is, at its heart, saying: death is a whole bunch of stuff, and the notable thing about death is that it is cool. It is saying: death is a futuristic obstacle course. 

The same criticism can be applied to Genisys. The Terminator films are about movement. The Terminator is coming for you. And when you shoot, burn or blow him up, he still keeps coming for you. The first three films are in two senses chase narratives: running away from the Terminator, and running away from humanity's fate. As the chase progresses, we learn more about the future. Just as the Terminator is not merely a cool cyborg but a metaphor for the Reaper, so Skynet is not merely a warning against artificial intelligence and Cold War automated Mutually Assured Destruction - both of which are dated concerns - but a metaphor for Fate, hence Judgement Day. These three narratives are honed, sharpened, thinned: not too much scenes set in the future; a sense of intrigue as to how these characters will clash before the first cathartic chase (Who is Kyle? Is the Terminator human? What do they want with Sarah? Has the Terminator been reprogrammed? What is the T1000? What does the TX want with Kate?); the first battle - which combines action, mystery and exposition - and a solid three-act structure to the setpieces.

   The action in Genisys, by contrast, gets off to a jarring start. The scene where the Terminator returns to his first scene from the first film to fight his younger self - interrupting him before he can murder three loitering punks - has been promoted as if it were the film's biggest selling point, yet this curiously redundant, dramatically inert scene is a striking example of how the script fails to understand the patterns, shapes and rhythms that drive the central metaphors behind the Terminator series. We aren't rooting for the three thugs the younger Terminator approaches - who are sinister and potentially murderous figures - and we know they won't appear in any other scenes and are of no importance to the plot. Consequently, the older Schwarzenegger's entrance carries no sense of relief, and does nothing for the narrative. It doesn't even begin to compare with the excitement of the Terminator saving John in T2's first setpiece, or Kyle saving Sarah in the first film. Someone has simply said "wouldn't it be cool if Arnold fought himself?" and the FX team indulge him. An elaborate action sequence with school buses twirling through the air and then dangling over the edge of the Golden Gate bridge isn't built up to, but is sandwiched between equally elaborate FX-fests only a few minutes before or after in which cyborgs smash into each other and vehicles are hurled at the screen. The amount of time Terminator 2 was prepared to spend between its second and third setpieces, allowing the tension to build up and giving us breathing space to get to know these characters and make the climax a far more emotional experience, seems unthinkable in the age of thunk thunk THUNK movies like Genisys and Man of Steel.

   The beauty of the first three films' time travel narratives (vivid but short glimpses of the future, taut narratives set in the present) has been replaced with a much less potent narrative involving alternative timelines, time-travelling from the 1980s to the near present, and an overly long-winded beginning set in the future. It took days for me to realise why Judgement Day is postponed from 1997 to 2017: I think it's because the remains of the 1984  Terminator no longer get left in that factory seen at the end of the first film for Cyberdyne to find and subsequently use to invent Skynet: a point totally unexplained onscreen. Yet while this is often hard to follow, it brings nothing new to the Terminator mythos. The Genisys (how peculiarly irritating to spell it wrong for no reason) storyline is a rehash of bland science fiction from Stormbreaker to Rise of the Cybermen, and while T3 had the slow realisation that the virus Skynet was on the verge of being unleashed to tackle was actually Skynet itself, and T2 had the strong presence of Joe Morton as Miles Dyson, here Genisys is created purely so that we can be told it is Skynet from its first mention (reminiscent of the crap disguises adopted by 60s Batman villains). JK Simmons's character seems to appear purely in order to be kept alive for the sequel, and Matt Smith has no more gravitas playing the personification of Skynet itself than he did as Doctor Who.

   T3 was much more interesting because it had a nasty shock for its audience: despite what T2 had led us to believe, Judgement Day is not preventable. The idea that humanity's ultimate task will not be to prevent Judgement Day but to survive it is a genuinely different take on the story, putting the previous 2 films in a different light, which is precisely what Genisys doesn't have. And notice how this horrifying climax sees all the narrative strands - John and Kate's awkwardness at the idea of their predestined relationship, only to find unexpected strength together, John's realisation at what the Terminator was trying to tell them all along and his realisation that his task as leader will be a lot less triumphant but no less crucial - come together. This is drama.

   Another criticism that might well be offered of Terminator Genisys is that it sentimentalises the Terminator himself, but to be fair, that was hardly less true of the second film. T3, on the other hand, did something cleverer, building on the twist that T2 brought to the character. At first, it seems to be a reprise of the T2 relationship, with John even acknowledging that the Terminator is the only father figure he has ever had. Then we get the immensely powerful moment in which the Terminator reveals that before the resistance captured him, reprogrammed him and sent him through time, he terminated John. Similarly, the Terminator isn't here to save humanity from Judgement Day: he's here to help us prepare for it. Here he is something less cutesy than in T2 or Genisys: he is the friendly face of the Grim Reaper, something not dissimilar to Terry Pratchett's Death. There is a marvellous moment when John and Kate manage to share a joke together, and the Terminator comments "Your levity is good, it relieves tension and the fear of death." It's poignant, it's funny, it's a nice character moment for all three, and it's slightly creepy.

   Those kind of moments are missing from Genisys due to the convoluted nature of the rebooted versions of Sarah, Kyle and John. Compare the famous line in the first film: "for the few hours we were together we loved a lifetimes worth." That line has a good, simple emotional kick to it. In the first three films, first Sarah than John than John and Kate are ordinary people told that they will become humanity's only hope. This too is a good, simple idea to run with. In Genisys by contrast we have a Sarah and Kyle who haven't time to become lovers, yet know that they will become lovers and parents of the saviour of humanity, a Sarah who already knows about Skynet and who has been raised by the Terminator (offscreen, in contrast to T2's Sarah who has become a warrior in response to events the audience got to see in the first film) from childhood, and a John that Sarah meets before she has conceived him only to find out he is now a Terminator set upon the destruction of humanity. It's hard to identify with such characters, and this means the frenetic action isn't countered by emotion as it was in the first three films. As CS Lewis put it, to tell how odd things struck odd people is an oddity too many.

   Then there's the problem of the male leads. Michael Biehn, as Kyle Reese in the first film, looked liked someone who had spent his entire life in pain, in the run, and underground. Nick Stahl - present-day John Connor in T3 - looked like someone who actually had spent the last few years "off the grid", breaking into a vet's when he needed painkillers, and who couldn't understand how a mess like him could be mankind's saviour. Jai Courtney, by contrast, is a deeply bland Kyle Reese, a generic, vaguely hunky bore. Jason Clarke is an even more absurd casting choice: called upon to play first the leader of humanity and then the film's antagonist, he turns in such a charisma-free performance that in the first role one wonders if anyone in the future would have listened to him, and in the second role one gets irritated rather than frightened every time he turns up. 

   This was why I found it galling that James Cameron should record an endorsement for Genisys in which he said "it feels to me like the third film...I feel like the franchise has been reinvigorated...it feels like a renaissance", although this is less stunning when you remember Cameron presumably also thinks True Lies, Titanic and Avatar are good films. Rather than a renaissance, Genisys may deal the series a deathblow. Unlike the blandness of Salvation, it will be hard for the franchise to ignore. The presence of Schwarzenegger and the way the film makes audiences fed up with convoluted  time travel make it unfeasible that yet another sequel ignoring it in turn could be released. What we had here was a modern myth, using the language of modern pop culture to address apocalyptic fears: fate, destiny, love, death and hope. Now we've got something that may be as dead as RoboCop.

So, why don't we all watch the third film again?

Friday, 27 March 2015

Terry Pratchett Remembered



Terry Pratchett had a way of crafting a sentence that was his own. This is what makes him a great writer full-stop, not just a great popular writer. By the time of books like Small Gods, Jingo, Nation, Monstrous Regiment, and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents he was a writer incapable of writing a routine sentence. This unique style used the second person. A few examples:



You never said to your parents, "Hey, I really need a computer because that way I can play Megasteroids."
   No, you said,"I really need a computer because of school."
   It's educational.
   Anyway, there had to be a good side to the Trying Times everyone was going through in this house. If you hung around in your room and generally kept your head down, stuff like computers sort of happened. It made everyone feel better.
(Only You Can Save Mankind)


And of course, very people *do* know how Tradition is supposed to go. There's a certain mysterious ridiculousness about it by its very nature. Once there was a reason why you had to carry a posy of primroses on Soul Cake Tuesday, but now you did it because...that's what was Done. Besides, the intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.
(Jingo)

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.
(Jingo)

People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn't that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn't measure up. What would run through the streets soon enough wouldn't be a revolution or a riot. It'd be people who were frightened and panicking. It was what happened when the machinery of city life faltered, the wheels stopped turning and all the little rules broke down. And when that happened, humans were worse than sheep. Sheep just ran; they didn't try to bite the sheep next to them.
(Night Watch)

 A witch didn't do things because they seemed a good idea at the time! That was practically cackling. You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap. But you didn't because, as Miss Tick had once explained:
a) it would make the world a better place for only a very short time;
b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and
c) you're not supposed to be as stupid as they are.” 
(Wintersmith)

The stories never said why she was wicked. It was enough to be an old woman, enough to be all alone, enough to look strange because you have no teeth. It was enough to be called a witch. If it came to that, the book never gave you the evidence of anything. It talked about "a handsome prince"... was he really, or was it just because he was a prince that people called handsome? As for "a girl who was as beautiful as the day was long"... well, which day? In midwinter it hardly ever got light! The stories don't want you to think, they just wanted you to believe what you were told.
(The Wee Free Men)

I'll never be like this again . . . I'll never again feel as tall as the sky and as old as the hills and as strong as the sea. I've been given something for a while, and the price of it is that I have to give it back. 
   And the reward is giving it back, too. No human could live like this. You could spend a day looking at a flower to see how wonderful it is, and that wouldn't get the milking done. No wonder we dream our way through our lives. To be awake, and see it all as it really is...no one could stand that for long.
(The Wee Free Men)


People have believed for hundreds of years that newts in a well mean that the water's fresh and drinkable, and in all that time never asked themselves whether the newts got out to go to the lavatory.

(Reaper Man)

And, while it was regarded as pretty good evidence of criminality to be living in a slum, for some reason owning a whole street of them merely got you invited to the very best social occasions.

(Feet of Clay)

[...] with the expression of one who knows that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train.
(Interesting Times)

Sergeant Colon had had a broad education. He'd been to the School of What My Dad Always Said, the College of It Stands to Reason, and was now a postgraduate student at the University of What Some Bloke in the Pub Told Me.
(Jingo)

It was a wry, knowing, sceptical style, constantly challenging received wisdom, and exploring how that received wisdom - sometimes merely stupid, sometimes toxic - affected everything from the psychological makeup of his protagonists, to the behaviour of people in crowds, to the behaviour of whole societies. Granny Weatherwax, Johnny Maxwell and Sam Vimes are characters forged from the hammer and anvil collision of what a society expects from its witches, children or police and what it actually needs; between what stories have led us to expect witches, children and police to be capable of and what happens when they affect the lives of real human beings.

The complaint that writers of genre fiction are treated less seriously than mainstream "literary" writers can sometimes be a waste of time. Ursula Le Guin has just won the National Book Award's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, JG Ballard was seen as our greatest living novelist by those outside as well as inside SF circles, and it can hardly be said that, say, China Mieville's novels are reviewed in less depth or with less respect than Anita Brookner's or Graham Swift's. There are six reasons why on this occasion the complaint actually has substance to it and Pratchett's work genuinely is underestimated. 

Firstly, unlike Ballard, Vonnegut, William Gibson or Philip Pullman, Pratchett never made his books poachable by those disdainful of SF. Ballard and Vonnegut lost interest in Science Fiction, Pullman claimed he didn't write fantasy but "stark realism", Gibson and Ballard moved in later novels to exploring their concerns from a less overtly SF setup. Pratchett continued to write fantasy, which shouldn't distract from the extraordinary maturation of his work. As George Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens, he is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Nation, Monstrous Regiment, Going Postal, Hogfather, Wintersmith, Night Watch and The Amazing Maurice are better written, richer books than the early ones, fun though those are. It seemed natural at the start of the series that the characters would have names like Rincewind and Twoflower and no second names. Pratchett comes from fandom. He didn't merely use fantasy because it was the best medium for what he wanted to say, nor did he lose interest in it. He was the kid hooked on The Lord of the Rings who corresponded with Tolkien, was thrilled to meet Michael Moorcock and Arthur C Clarke at conventions and who wrote The Colour of Magic because there was so much bad Tolkien-lite around he decided it was time for some fantasy with a little wit. He continued to be a fan of astronomy, Aliens and Red Dwarf, and came damn close to making a knighthood cool when he responded by smelting his own sword out of meteorite ore.

 Secondly, his work won him a fandom of his own: his novels appeared alongside maps and guidebooks of the Discworld, he interacted with his fans from the earliest days of the internet, and the Discworld had much appeal for convention-goers, gamers and costume enthusiasts. No writer could have expressed more care and affection for such a fan base, and it's what got my teenage self hooked, but serious attention should be paid to Pratchett's art, as many of these novels are more important than anything by many of Britain's supposedly "literary" novelists. From Small Gods onwards Pratchett began writing more ethically complex novels of ideas. The fandom didn't decrease, and while Pullman and Rowling's books were published in alternative "non-genre" covers from the start, it took some years before the Discworld books were available in this way. Along with another distinction that Pratchett earned - everything he ever wrote remained in print - this meant that his oevre tended to take up a distinctive section in any bookshop, and made it easier for snobs or skimmers to categorise his books. It also probably created the false impression you needed to have read each book's predecessors or be an aficionado of the genre to appreciate it.

Thirdly, he was popular. I don't think anyone in history has ever written so well while selling such vast copies. His work was adored by children and teenagers and, as the legend goes, he was even the UK's most shoplifted author. It was the sales figures that made Tom Paulin sneer ("selling thousands of copies - a complete amateur - doesn't even write in chapters") in an ignoble performance in which he discussed Pratchett on BBC2's Late Review. Some critics find it hard to stomach the uncomfortable truth: a popular artist brought wisdom and the numinous to the masses. (I'm assuming only Paulin was kept away by the excruciatingly stupid chapter complaint.)  If Pratchett's books aren't literature, nothing is. 

Fourthly, he was prolific. Joyce Carol Oates and Anthony Burgess have also received grief for this. Pratchett published, by my count, 55 novels in his lifetime, and had already submitted the 56th, 57th and 58th to his publishers by the time of his death. It remains important to convince people that this astonishing rate of production was not due to a preference for speed over craft, attention and depth. Pratchett was, as Neil Gaiman has pointed out, rare among writers in the pleasure he took in the act of writing itself.

Fifthly, so many of his books are set on the same world, a highly misleading detail exacerbated by the phrase "A Discworld Novel" always appearing on the cover. The forty-one Discworld novels are not installments in a single series. The Discworld series consists of six different series plus stand-alone novels. Yes, the world is a disc resting on four giant elephants on the back of a giant turtle, but many of the books don't mention this just as Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady doesn't mention the Earth's crust.The Light Fantastic and Going Postal have about as much in common - and show the same range and maturation - as The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House, two books also by the same author and set on the same planet.

Sixthly, his writing embraced comedy in all its forms. Comedy tends to be underestimated anyway, but Pratchett's went beyond the supposedly literary. Like Douglas Adams, Sue Townsend and Tom Sharpe, he was part of a generation raised not just on literature but on radio, TV and film and on the newer forms of purely comic writing: Monty Python, the Goons and the Marx Brothers, along with unashamedly comic writers such as Wodehouse, Grossmith, Wilde, Waugh, Amis and Jerome, and in Pratchett's case bound copies of Punch magazine from the Victorian era to the 1960s. He used satire, and character humour, but also puns, setpieces and slapstick. Splendid creations like Bloody Stupid Johnson, the mad Bursar and Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler come from the world of sketches and sitcoms as much as from literature, and that's no bad thing. Some of the gags, like the more straightforward fantasy tropes, get dropped as his novels grew more sophisticated.

   AS Byatt's description of Pratchett having the "real energy of the primary storyteller" remains the best description of him as an artist. His daughter Rhianna once described herself as having worked as a narrative paramedic, and we can see where that came from: a strong instinct for what works and doesn't work in narrative runs through  Pratchett's novels. However, this is never used for mere postmodern smugness. Discworld is powered by narrativium, as Pratchett put it in The Science of Discworld. His description of the new version of Doctor Who - "making too much use of the msgic element makeitupasyougoalongium" is treasurable because it encapsulates the point that such an element is required, even though its overuse can be dangerous. Pullman favours a Rushdie-esque "stories will defeat theocracy" message which is conveyed rather crudely in The Amber Spyglass, but Pratchett believed that fantasy was like alcohol: too much is bad, but a little can make the world a better place. His books explore how we use stories, but also how they get out of hand. As Byatt points out, he is "more important" than Pullman because he never lets didactic "designs on his readers" get in the way of his art.

  No male novelist ever wrote better female characters. In the series spanning from Equal Rites - in which a dying wizard hands on his staff to a baby, not realising it is female, and the child grows up, with the help of the village witch Granny Weatherwax, determined not to let the wizard patriarchy hold her back - to the Tiffany Aching books - in which a nine-year-old becomes a witch and learns everything from defeating the Queen of the fairies to cheesemaking to puberty - he constructed a brilliant feminist panorama, in which complex evils have to be fought while a community has to be maintained. The evils that Granny and Tiffany face are not just there to keep the narrative moving, but to challenge the protagonists' beliefs, and challenge them to reaffirm their ideals. The same challenge is faced by Vimes, Johnny Maxwell and Mau from Nation, and by heartbreaking coincidence Pratchett himself would face it in real life after being diagnosed with PCA in 2007. In these novels, monsters are there to remind you why you need to be a hero. Tiffany and Granny face challanges on a smaller scale, too. Carpe Jugulum features an affecting scene in which Granny saves the live of a pregnant woman kicked by her cow but is unable to save the baby. Her last action is to make sure the husband doesn't kill the cow, as the couple will need it. I Shall Wear Midnight has a beautifully drawn scene in which Tiffany discovers that Amber, a young village girl, has been beaten unconscious by her father upon his discovery of her pregnancy, resulting in a miscarriage, and must work hard not only to prevent him from harming his wife and daughter, but to prevent a lynch mob mentality breaking out amongst the villagers:

The rough music was never organised. It seemed to occur to everybody at once. It played when a village thought that a man had beaten his wife too hard, or his dog too savagely, or if a married man and a married woman forgot that they were married to somebody else. There were other, darker crimes against the music too, but they weren't talked about openly.

In person Pratchett was as awesome as you'd expect him to be, every speech full of the wit, grace and love of language that reflected Pratchett's love of Chesterton, Twain and Wodehouse. The fight he put up against PCA was as inspiring as one of Tiffany Aching's battles,and he displayed the same poignant determination to bring warmth and humour to darkness. The only occasion I saw him in the flesh - at an appearance at London's Drury Lane Theatre in 2011 - will remain a magical memory for me. He was on great form, and his assistant Rob Wilkins was - as was clear from the two excellent documentaries - part of a marvellous double act, and as good a friend as any one could wish for, which is why on hearing the bad news one thinks of Rob just as one thinks of Terry's wife and daughter.

We have lost a great man, but what he has left us is staggering.