Posts Tagged ‘Themes’

Warning: spoilers for both books.

Without question, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is one of the best books I’ve ever read in any genre, not just because it’s heart-stoppingly original, exquisitely written, gorgeously characterised, perfectly structured and amazingly worldbuilt, but because it defies easy categorisation – at least on the surface. On first perusal, it reads as YA urban fantasy right up until you realise it’s somehow transmuted into adult epic fantasy, and when the hell did that happen? Which is less confusing than it is brilliant, Taylor’s skill at successive big reveals being consummate; the point being, though, that it’s really both and neither. What Daughter is – what the series is, as Days of Blood and Starlight makes clear – is an epic portal fantasy, and once you come to that realisation, the whole starts to become… well, not clear, because the story was never unclear, but better contextualised.

Because whether we mean to or not, we all as readers – as audiences – rely on narrative signposting to tell us what kind of story we’re in. If we misread those signs, then it’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that the story itself is somehow at fault for failing to meet our expectations, when more often than not, the fault is ours for assuming they were valid to begin with. And I say this now because, in reading other reviews of Starlight – many of which are mixed – the single common thread seems to be a species of bewilderment, or complaint, or uncertainty, or surprise at the very least, that the book wasn’t what the reviewer thought it should be. And prior to having read it, that worried me a little, because Daughter was so incredible that obviously – obviously! – it was always going to be a difficult act to follow, which is so often true of impressive first installments. But now, it seems that, at least in some cases, the problem isn’t with the book, but with the expectations of the audience: or, more specifically, the expectation that a story which has as its starting point the genocide of the heroine’s people by her former lover would be anything other than a war story.

Days of Blood and Starlight is a dark, heartbreaking exploration of the consequences of terrorism, empire, slavery, dehumanisation, power and sacrifice, and the myriad ugly ways in which violence and retribution are self-perpetuating. It is also – quite naturally, given the scope of the worldbuilding, but perhaps jarringly to anyone who took the urban fantasy elements at the start of Daughter to be thematically integral to the series rather than a skillfully executed smokescreen – epic. Literally: the bulk of the story takes place in the world of Eretz, which is at war, and so employs multiple POV characters – many new, and some of them one-shots – to give us an all-over view of the conflict. As any habitual, critical reader of epic works will tell you, this is an easy gambit to get wrong: too many new characters can bog the narrative, drive it off track, or otherwise detract from the central, pivotal struggle. But in the case of Starlight, Taylor has managed this potentially hazardous structure with a rare graceful economy – in large part, I suspect, because her native writing style is so uniquely beautiful. In all respects, Taylor’s prose is like the musculature of a hunting cat: glossy, gorgeous, evocative and a form of poetry in its own right, but perfectly balanced, powerful and with not an ounce of flesh wasted. All of which – Taylor’s literary skill and Starlight’s martial themes both – can be summed up in a single, encompassing sentence:

“What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it?”

This question, ultimately, cuts to the heart of the novel. Akiva’s actions in bringing about the fall of Loramendi – and, as a direct consequence, the effective genocide and enslavement of the chimaera – are unforgivable. Akiva knows this, Karou knows this, the narrative knows this; and yet, because this is a hard, dark story, both the reader and Akiva are still forced to confront the reality of what comes next – or rather, the fact that something does come next. The world doesn’t stop nor the clock turn back: Akiva isn’t trying for redemption, but still he has to move forwards, all the while dragging the weight of what he’s done, because there isn’t any alternative. A new world still needs to be fought for, even by people like him. But Akiva isn’t alone in having blood on his hands: as Thiago’s new resurrectionist, Karou effectively enables his campaign of terrorism – the slaughter of innocent civilians, mothers and children – by building him a new and brutal army. Akiva’s betrayal has broken her; she is grieving, pained both physically and mentally by the strains of her task, and tortured by shame and guilt at the thought of her role in what happened at Loramendi. And yet, this doesn’t excuse her ignorance, the length of time it takes her to understand the use to which her gifts are being put – the bleak and utter darkness of Thiago’s revenge. Just as Akiva is culpable for the massacre of chimaera, so is Karou made culpable for the slaughter of angels.

Blinded by rage and pain and grief, both characters have lent themselves to the execution of terrible deeds and the support of monsters. Akiva’s might be the greater crime, but in either case, there’s no coming back from what they’ve done. What happens next isn’t a question of balancing the scales – there can be no balance – but finding a way to live in what remains of their world, and somehow, maybe, to remake it. And as both find themselves serving under commanders without mercy – Joram and Jael for Akiva, with their dreams of conquest; Thiago for Karou, with his bloody revenge against innocents – both, as Starlight progresses, find the strength for mercy where mercy means treason, building their rebellious hopes in secret. And there is hope: in Sveva, the Dama girl freed from captivity by the rebels; in the true love shared by Zuzana and Mik. Though seemingly incongruous at times, the latter’s inclusion is vital: a bodily reminder – to Karou, to the reader, to the chimaera – of what, in all this blood and catastrophe, the fighting is actually *for*. A simple thing, perhaps; but without the presence of Mik and Zuzana to counterbalance the horror and remind Karou of her human self, Starlight would be an altogether bleaker, more desolate novel.

Even so, the finale is harrowing. This being a war story, Taylor hasn’t spared us the threat of sexual violence against women; or rather, has acknowledged its existence in Liraz’s fears, not of the enemy, but the appetites of her own commander, and her fury at the whole awful system of soldier-bastards fathered on unwilling concubines that underpins Joram’s reign. “These are our mothers,” she fumes at one point – and just like that, we realise her loyalty to the empire is broken (if, indeed, it ever really existed). But at the end, it’s Karou who finds herself facing Thiago’s appetites – the same angry, violent, possessive lust which, when thwarted originally, lead him to torture Akiva and behead Madrigal. Starlight is not an easy read, but in a book brimming with ugliness and torture, the final few chapters are the hardest to read of all.

And yet somehow, despite all the horror, Taylor still manages to end on a note of courage, with just enough stray threads left purposefully dangling to ensure that, whatever the next book brings, it’s bound to be nuanced and complex. Days of Blood and Starlight is a powerful, purposeful novel that subverts our expectations even as it builds them, forcing its characters through darkness only so that they might relearn hope. A truly worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Prompted by the current kerfuffle about book reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been thinking about what, for me, constitutes a good or useful review, and reached the conclusion that overall tone is vastly less important than the lucid contextualisation of arguments. By which I mean: when we react strongly to something – whether positively or negatively – that reaction is contextualised by our existing beliefs, morality, tastes and biases, none of which will necessarily be shared by anyone else, and without at least basic reference to which our reaction will not be useful or even comprehensible to others. For instance: say I have a strong aversion to sex scenes, a nonexistent interest in or knowledge of baseball, and a preference for stories which feature multiple points of view, and I unknowingly pick up a book where the characters have sex, talk constantly about their shared passion for baseball, and which has only one narrator. Clearly, the odds are stacked against my liking this book, and particularly if I’ve chosen it under the misapprehension that I’d enjoy it – say, for instance, because a well-meaning friend with an imperfect knowledge of my tastes recommended it to me – then chances are, I’m going to be disappointed. This does not, however, mean that the book itself is terrible (although it certainly might be) – just that I was entirely the wrong audience for it.

A good review, no matter how negative, will openly contextualise its biases for the reader: I don’t like sex, baseball or single narrators, and therefore disliked these aspects of this book. A mediocre review will hint at these issues, but fail to state them clearly, such that a reader could easily mistake the reviewer’s personal bugbears for objective criticism about structure and narrative flow: the sex scenes were unnecessary, all the baseball was boring and it would’ve benefited from multiple POVs. A bad review won’t make any attempt to explain itself whatsoever - instead, it will simply react: this book is terrible, and I hate everything about it. To be clear, that last remark could well appear in a good or mediocre review as part of an opening gambit or conclusion; but in those instances, the reviewer would have also tried to distinguish their own hangups from whatever else they thought was wrong with the book, so that someone who didn’t object to sex scenes or baseball and who enjoyed single narrator stories (for instance) would be able to make a reasoned judgement about whether or not to read it.

The same principle applies to positive reactions, too: a gushing review is useless if it fails to explain exactly what pleased the reviewer so much, or – just as importantly – if it doesn’t state the reviewer’s personal preferences. This is particularly relevant in instances where the presence of a beloved narrative element might cause the reviewer to ignore or overlook flaws which, were that element not present, might undermine their enjoyment. Personal taste is a balancing act, and one it pays to be aware of. For instance: I love trashy disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Twister and The Core, all of which are ludicrous to varying degrees, and all of which contain noticeable plotfail of the kind which, in a different context, would have me ranting and raving the whole way home. I give disaster movies a pass because I expect them to be illogical; but if a similar species of illogic ever crops up in a fantasy film, my husband can vouch for the fact that I’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy dissecting it afterwards.

The point being, a good review doesn’t just tell us about the story: it also tells us a bit about the reviewer, which lets us judge whether our tastes are roughly aligned with theirs – at least in this instance. After all, people are complex, and it’s rare for any two people’s likes and dislikes to always be in perfect alignment. A good review should function a bit like a Venn diagram, showing you the circle of the reviewer’s relevant biases so you can put your own beside it and see how much – if at all – they overlap. Which isn’t to say that a total absence of agreement is useless; all you have to do is reverse the judgement, like making a mental note that if Friend X says a particular film is terrible, then it’s probably going to be awesome. (I mean, come on. We all have this friend.)

For me, a reviewer’s tone is only important insofar as it helps me to contextualise their tastes. I tend to enjoy reviewers with an evident sense of humour, because it suggests to me that they’re not above poking fun at the things they love; and as I don’t always take things seriously, that can be as a  refreshing change from earnest adoration. Which isn’t to say that I never enjoy serious reviews – certainly, I tend to write them myself – only that I hold them to a slightly higher standard: comedic reviews can make for enjoyable reading even if their usefulness is limited, whereas straight reviews have nothing to recommend them but their usefulness, and should that be lacking, there isn’t much point to them. That being said, I’ve little patience for comedic reviews that are more concerned with abstract jokes than actually making a point. Humour might help to emphasise a good argument, but it isn’t a substitute for one, and in the case of negative reviews, it can sometimes feel like it’s being deployed purely or primarily to conceal the reviewer’s lack of relevant insight. A good review isn’t simply about your gut reaction to a book: it’s also an explanation as to why that reaction should matter to other people.

Which brings me to the subject of negative reviews in particular, and my personal approach to them. While I completely understand that some authors choose to refrain from posting negative reviews of their peers’ work, this isn’t something I feel comfortable with. The reason I review at all is to engage in conversation about a particular work, and the idea of abstaining from that simply because I tell stories as well as read them isn’t one that appeals to me. It’s important to note, however, that I’m not a big name author – quite the opposite, in fact – which means that, in the vast majority of instances, my public dislike of a book will have little to no impact on its sales, its general perception and the self esteem of the author. Should that situation ever change, I might well rethink my policy, or at least be extremely judicious about which books I review, because as much as I enjoy writing about stories, popularity (I think) comes with an inherent responsibility to use it, well… responsibly. And the thing about speaking to the mob – or fans, or readers, or any other large group people inclined to pay attention to you – is that you can’t control its reactions, or account for the comprehension of its individual members. And while that doesn’t preclude you from having opinions, it should certainly behoove you to consider what the negative consequences of voicing them might be.

But, I digress: for now, I’m a little-known author more widely recognised for her blogging than her books, which gives me comparative leeway to talk about the things I dislike without worrying that I might accidentally break someone else’s career. (Even so, while I sometimes post positive reviews on my blog, I restrict any negative ones to Goodreads, which feels like the more appropriate place to put them. To me, this is a meaningful professional distinction: unless I actively want to cheerlead for a particular author – and sometimes I do – reviews, whether good or bad, belong on the review site. Simple as that.) And when I do write reviews, I always try to think about why I’m bothering. It’s not my policy to review every single book that I read, or even a majority of them: I only do so is if there’s something about a given story, be it good or bad, that seems to invite discussion. In instances where it’s a negative thing, I try to be very certain about what, specifically, I’m objecting to. Am I morally outraged by something in the text? Does a particular character rub me the wrong way? Does either the plot or the worldbuilding have a hole in it? Is the writing style jarring, or does the author have narrative tic I find irksome? Is it a combination of factors, or just one thing in particular? It’s important to stop and ask these questions, particularly if your emotional reaction is a strong one. Don’t let the popularity of a book overly influence your critical judgement of it, either: by all means, be angry and flabbergasted that something you didn’t enjoy is selling like hot cakes, but unless you’re making a specific argument about successful trends in fiction, keep it out of the review – after all, you’re trying to asses the book itself, not pass judgement on its readers. (And if your review is less about the strengths or failings of a work than it is about mocking its fans, then I’m going to count it unhelpful, and therefore bad.)  And even if you are discussing narrative trends, blind anger at their existence is ultimately less useful than a lucid deconstruction of what they represent and why you find it problematic.

Ultimately, I think, a useful review – even a negative one – should invite conversation. If I dislike a book, I’ll strive to say so in a way that opens the issue up for discussion; which isn’t to say that I’ll always succeed, only that I find the idea of actively trying to discourage discussion incredibly problematic. Making someone feel stupid for liking something – or not liking something – isn’t an outcome that appeals to me: I’d much rather invite people with different opinions to contribute to the conversation than surround myself exclusively with like-minded people, whose agreement – while certainly flattering – does’t teach me anything. Which is also why, on occasion, I’ll actively seek out negative reviews of books I like: to see if other readers might have picked up on something problematic or interesting that I missed. I’ve had some genuine epiphanies about writing, narrative, implicit bias and tropes by doing this, and if you can bear to see something you love being criticized without wading in to defend it, I highly recommend giving it a try. But of course, it only works if the reviews you encounter are useful. They might be cheeky, snarky, serious, lighthearted, deadpan or investigative in tone, but so long as they contextualise their arguments, you could well be pleasantly surprised.

 

Warning: spoilers. 

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve caught myself up to date with Night Terrors, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex. All three are well-written, well-executed episodes: their plots are coherent and self-contained, the scripting is solid, and there’s a genuine feeling of mystery and tension to each of them. That being said, I’m still distinctly unhappy with the treatment of the female characters. In all three episodes, Amy ends up a damsel who needs to be rescued, while the latter two both use the deaths of competent, clever, interesting women to wring emotional responses from the audience. There’s also the lesser (but still relevant) issue of Moffat’s constant reuse of robots/functions as villains and the overwhelming number of Earth-based episodes, but we’ll get to that later. First, let’s look at the ladies.

For an excellent summation of the problems with the death of Older Amy in The Girl Who Waited, I recommend this post by Phoebe North. To quote:

Every single aspect of this plot and every action of the Doctor conspire to invalidate Older!Amy’s choices, desires, and personhood. What matters is that she be spared, even if she doesn’t want to be spared–because the men, of course, know better than she do about her very life.

In this episode, the Doctor acts in a way that’s in keeping with his recent behavior, but is still insanely maddening. He’s paternalistic. He’s condescending. He lies. He rejects Amy’s right and autonomy over her experiences outright…

It’s only Older!Amy who is anything new. This is the first time we’ve seen concrete, verifiable growth in Amy-Pond-the-adult. It’s also the first time it’s been suggested that she’s a certifiable genius. Karen Gillan is able to stretch her acting chops like never before. She fights. She invents. She hacks. She flirts. Despite the fact that she’s been hurt, she’s still indisputably a whole, capable person–in precisely the way that our Amy has never been…

Amy’s storyline is really more of the same. The woman has to be saved. Worse, the woman doesn’t really know what’s good for her–to the point where she has to be manipulated and tricked into making the right decision.

I understand television’s need to protect the status quo. But Rory has been allowed to grow, from passive near-cuckold into a hero. In previous seasons, Donna, Martha, and Rose all underwent very palpable growth as their experiences changed their goals, lives, and desires (even if Donna was pretty much royally screwed over in the end). Now that I’ve had a more concrete vision of what Amy could be dangled in front of me–and then snatched away by male characters and writers who say they know better–damn it, I want a sign of that woman on the actual showI want some sign that Amy can grow into a brilliant, kick ass person even as she stands by her husband’s side.

Because otherwise? If Amy stays as she is today–if the show continues to value damselship over competence, raw youth over experience, passivity over self-sufficiency–if Amy is always the problem and almost never the solution?

Then I’m done.

As has been previously mentioned, A Good Man Goes To War left me with so little faith in the show that I had to postpone watching the next set of episodes. This meant that my husband went ahead and watched them without me; a sort of advanced guard to test the waters. After finishing The Girl Who Waited, he came storming out of the bedroom in a state of distress, talking about how vile and awful it was that the Amy who’d been left on her own for 36 years – who was clever and capable and deserving of freedom – was killed off in favour of her younger self. What was worse, he said, was how little criticism of the episode he could find online: did people not realise how morally reprehensible this was? Admittedly, that absence may be more reflective of his weak Google-fu than of the majority reaction to the episode, but even so: my husband, who has been a fan of Doctor Who since childhood, has reached a point with the new series where he considers the Doctor to be morally bankrupt. And honestly? I am not about to disagree with him.

There is no reason why Older Amy had to die except that the writers wanted her to. In a show – and, more particularly, a season – where continuity is constantly being retconned, where exceptions are constantly found to old rules and where pretty much everything that happens is explicable only by magic, blaming the necessity of Older Amy’s death on any extant Whoniverse laws is both demeaning and cheap. Worse still is the decision to make the Doctor directly responsible for it: he literally slams the door in her face and leaves her to die, having promised sanctuary he knows is impossible. But the only reason for that impossibility is authorial. We still could have had a heart-wrenching finale where Older Amy was deposited on an alien world and forced to hand Rory over to her younger self; given that she was in a quarantine facility, she could even have been left behind on the original world, but in the visitor’s section, free to make her own way out. But no: as with ‘Ganger Amy before her, she is killed – and not just on the Doctor’s watch, but by him.

And then they pull the exact same trick again. In The God Complex, we are introduced to Rita, a clever, capable woman who immediately wins the Doctor’s respect to such an extent that he tells Amy she’s fired. It’s a joke, of course, but intentionally or not, this sets up the whole episode as a comparison between the two characters. Rita is brave, calm and selfless (and a Muslim! an actual positive representation of a Muslim woman on television!), while Amy clings, quite literally, to a blind, childish faith in the Doctor. There is no need for her to try and rescue herself or others, because he will always save her, and as the episode hinges on her admitting as much, it becomes abundantly clear that this has, in fact, been the defining aspect of her character all along. Meanwhile, poor Rita’s fate is sealed when the Doctor mentions taking her on the TARDIS with him, which has always been a kiss of death equivalent to watching a redshirt beam down to an alien planet alongside Kirk and Spock. She dies nobly and bravely, of course, but she still dies, and while in another time and place – by which I mean, an earlier season – I might have just accepted her death on its own terms, in the particular context of Season 6 and Moffat’s reign in general, it stands out as part of what is starting to feel like a calculated decision to keep the female characters young, pretty and pliant, or else to kill or depower them.

And then there’s the fact that Amy and Rory have ceased to grieve for their daughter. I don’t care that Melody Pond grows up to be River Song. I don’t care that Amy and Rory know this, and like who River is. They have, as a couple, lost a newborn child – one who goes on to be raised and brainwashed by terrorists – such that they are never really her parents, and know she endures a terrible childhood without them. This is fucking traumatic; or rather, it should be, except that we never actually see them grieve. In fact, against all logic and expectation, at the start of Let’s Kill Hitler, we learn that the Doctor has been looking for Melody through space and time without them, and I’m sorry, but what the fuck? Amy and Rory lose their daughter, and then they just go home to wait while the Doctor tries to hunt her down instead? This makes no sense; growing up with Mels is not equivalent compensation for losing a child; and when, at the end of The God Complex, the Doctor drops Amy and Rory home – seemingly for good, but who knows? – and Amy lightly says that he should tell River to drop in on them some time, my whole body clenched with anger. NO. As much as I’m ready for a new companion, Amy deserves better than to have been dragged through all of space and time, where she loses her child, and then just be taken home because the Doctor says so. I don’t care that he’s almost a thousand years old: this sudden, awful paternalism of Doctor Knows Best For The Ladies, such that he gets to override not only their desire to travel with him, but their desire to live, is vile.

To close out the feminist side of things, there’s an excellent piece at Tiger Beatdown about the problematic nature of Amy, wherein Lindsay Miller says:

Amy as a plot device… drives me insane with rage.  The writers cannot seem to come up with anything for her to do that doesn’t involve being a sexual or romantic object, a damsel in distress, or—more recently—a uterus in a box.  This is primarily a show about the Doctor, not his companions; I get that.  Still, Rose, Donna, and even the tragically underdeveloped Martha all got at least a few episodes dedicated them and their problems and their families…

Amy’s dialogue is reasonably well-written, and Karen Gillan’s performance is funny and engaging.  But her storylines are terrible.  We spent all of season 5 (which, for me, was about three days) hopelessly enmeshed in the Love Triangle that Just Wouldn’t Die.  Amy was engaged to Rory, who had a smallish head, but she wanted to make out with the Doctor, who had a huge head!  How would she ever choose between two such different head sizes?  Then she had a moment of realization and went with Rory, presumably because their eventual offspring would do less damage on the way out.  But every two or three episodes since then, we’ve gotten these teasing “maybe she really DOES love the Doctor” moments, even though everyone, including all three characters, is sick to death of that plot thread.  It’s like the writers honest-to-God cannot come up with anything better for two dudes and a lady to do, with all of space and time at their fingertips, than worry over which dude the lady will end up with.

Finally, there’s the Moffat tropes, which are wearing seriously thin. Let’s have a look at the themes and villains of this past season, shall we?

The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon: An eerie little girl in a spacesuit repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the Silence, who also repeat themselves, are uniform in appearance, and can’t be argued with.

The Curse of the Black Spot: The robotic function of a medical ship, who can’t be argued with.

The Doctor’s Wife: An evil planet who eats TARDISes and who has actual conversations with the characters. (Note: this episode was written by Neil Gaiman rather than a member of Moffat’s regular staff, and was originally meant to appear in the previous season.)

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People: Dopplegangers of the crew of a mining station, plus the crew itself and the Doctor.

A Good Man Goes To War: Headless monks, an army commander, and an evil eyepatch woman.

Let’s Kill Hitler: Robot doppleganger people filled with robotic ‘antibodies’ who attack intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus a creepy child-Amelia as a function of the TARDIS who repeats the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Night Terrors: Creepy, unspeaking zombie-dolls who chase the characters and mindlessly try to convert them.

The Girl Who Waited: Hospital robots who mindlessly try to subdue intruders while repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

The God Complex: A host of creepy, unspeaking dolls, plus a minotaur-monster who behaves exactly like a robot (i.e., he can’t turn himself off or stop what he does, nor do we hear him speak in his own right except through the Doctor’s translations) who causes people to turn into zombies and repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Is there a pattern here, do you think? Just to be sure, let’s run a check on the themes and villains of some previous Moffat episodes:

The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances: An eerie little boy in a gas mask repeating the same few lines of dialogue over and over, plus the robotic functions of a hospital ship who can’t be argued with.

The Girl in the Fireplace: Clockwork robots acting as functions of a ship who repeat the same few lines of dialogue over and over.

Blink: Quantum angels who don’t speak, but who prey on other lifeforms as functions of their existence and who, like robots, cannot be argued with.

Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead: Eerie dead people trapped in spacesuits repeating the same few lines over and over, plus the Vashta Nerada, who prey on other lifeforms as a function of their existence, and who are argued with once.

The Beast Below: Creepy clown-doll-robots acting as functions of a ship.

The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone: More quantum angels.

And then there’s the high incidents of female characters meeting the Doctor both in childhood and as adults, which started with Renette in The Girl in the Fireplace and goes on to define both River Song and Amy Pond. Put another way: Moffat seems to have a narrative range of exactly one female character, and the more he writes her, the weaker she gets.

Call me crazy, but I’m fairly sure this constitutes a pattern.

Which might go a long way towards explaining why we rarely, if ever, see any actual aliens any more; why we’re constantly stuck on Earth or in Earthlike settings as opposed to other worlds – because Moffat, for all his strengths (and some of these episodes are, in fairness, utterly brilliant) doesn’t seem to like writing alien races, or alien cultures. He likes puzzles and hospitals and automated processes and robots and enemies who can’t be argued with, which is all fine and awesome, except that this is all we’re getting any more. Even episodes which aren’t written by Moffat, like The Lodger and The Curse of the Black Spot – both of which feature automated hospital ships and their attendant robot-functions as the ultimate explanation for things – are chock-full of Moffaty tropes. And I don’t know about you, internets, but I am getting bored of so much sameness.

It doesn’t strike me as irrelevant that so far in Moffat’s tenure, not a single episode has been written by a woman. Admittedly, the same was true under Russell T. Davies – his first two seasons lacked any female-authored episodes, with Season 3′s Daleks in Manhatten being the first – but it shows more under Moffat, not only because of how he treats his female characters (badly), but because his preference for writing robots means that there are fewer gendered characters of any kind in the background, so that the number of secondary women has dropped, too.

I’m worried by all of this, internets. I really want the show to make a clean break next season, but I’m very much afraid that won’t happen. Yes, the writing and plotting has picked up again, but unless the ladies start to develop, too, it’s going to get harder and harder for me to continue with it.

There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.

I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d been frightened out of my young life when Haley Joel Osment confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy. Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.

After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?

I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I considered it, the more it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film, when they weren’t really horror at all.

With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind. Might I see something I’d missed before?

I could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, supernaturally gifted protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village, a community of emotionally scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.

The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error – turn back, turn back! – when, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.

Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce, and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation, scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can fix ourselves.